Sands of time pass slowly for soldiers poised in Kuwait

US troops bivouacked on the Kuwait-Iraq border cope with no showers, no electricity - and the uncertainty of whether war will come.

Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Scully sits in a blue canvas folding chair at the back of his 30-ton Bradley Linebacker anti-aircraft vehicle, looking as though he and his buddies are ready for a desert barbecue. Ketchup and mustard are set out on the vehicle's open-back hatch, along with "Muscle and Fitness" magazine.

But just as the temperatures in this desolate, sandswept US military staging area rose Wednesday to about 90 degrees F. - the hottest yet this spring - so Private Scully's impatience is growing to "get [the war] over with."

Indeed, for Scully and many of the 20,000 troops of the Third Infantry Division - now poised to spearhead a ground campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein on just hours' notice - an order to cross the border is widely anticipated as the only ticket home.

"I'm tired of sitting here and listening to all this politics on the radio," he says, gazing north toward the Iraqi border. "I feel like I live here more than in the US."

Scully, like thousands of comrades from the Fort-Stewart-based mechanized infantry division, has spent nine months of the past year in these badlands of Kuwait. His bride Kari, a nurse he married during a rushed visit home, smiles down at him from a photograph taped to the hatch of the Bradley, above his seat.

For months, Scully has endured the sandstorms, lizards, and loneliness of remote military encampments. In recent weeks, living conditions for the combat troops have grown even more austere as they've left base camps for "assembly areas" in the final stage of war preparations. With few tents, no electricity or running water, and only crude wooden latrines where waste must be removed and burned daily, these days, Scully sleeps in his vehicle.

MOREOVER, the uncertainty of the timing is gnawing at Scully and other troops. Largely cut off from outside news, they say that they're likely to be the last to learn of an order to advance.

"We'll be the last to know," says Capt. Adrienne Podmore, a mechanical support officer in the 703rd battalion. She says she works during almost all her waking hours, to make the time pass more quickly. ""What would I do with time off? Sit on my cot and eat dirt," she says, jolting through the desert in a Humvee.

Still, the young frontline fighters also express a determination to carry out their mission to remove Mr. Hussein from power - as well as their hope that, despite widespread global antiwar sentiment, the American people will support them in the end.

"I think it's time for Saddam to go," says 1st Lieut. Brad Gogats. "He's hurt his own people enough, and he's a threat to [US] National Security."

How easily the Iraqi leader and his elite Republican guard will give up is another pressing question for troops. US intelligence suggests that Hussein is planning to conserve his military forces in and around Baghdad to mount a last stand in the capital. "His fight for the country is basically for Baghdad," says Capt. David Roberts, a division intelligence specialist who notes the Iraqis have pulled back the Republican guard to form concentric rings of defense around the city.

But ordinary soldiers remain wary of the unexpected.

"Everyone will be a little nervous," says Sgt. Chastity Cobbs, who's in charge of water purification for advancing troops. "I have to be strong for my soldiers," says Sergeant Cobbs who, like many of the young troops, has never before ventured outside the US and knows little about Iraq.

She and other soldiers at the inhospitable camp sometimes sleep on top of giant, 3,000-gallon "onion skins" - clean water in round rubber containers.

Last night, Cobbs and the rest of the Third Infantry Division troops, known as the "Rock of the Marne" for their heroic World War II campaigns, were treated to a special "Marne Festival" meal of roast beef and potatoes.

It was expected to be one of the last hot meals the troops will receive before going into combat.

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