THE tarmac road peters out into sandy wasteland and a solitary stray dog yaps at the desert. Almost empty of its 60,000 people, the last town before the Kuwaiti border is eerily quiet. Fearful of being only 60 miles from the Iraqi lines, the Bedouin inhabitants of this low, sprawling market town fled south to live in their traditional tents when war broke out last week. But it is precisely Hafar al-Batin's strategic location near the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders that makes it the likely nerve center of a coalition ground assault on Iraqi forces when such an attack is launched.
The preparations for that drive have begun. On Sunday, the 300-mile road from the port of Dammam on the Gulf was jammed for almost its entire length. Egyptian water tankers, Syrian military police vehicles, and Kuwaiti flatbeds mixed with hundreds of British and American tank transporters and other vehicles laden with food, fuel, timber, ammunition, electricity generators, loaded rocket launchers, medical equipment, pontoon bridges, mail for the troops, and a host of other supplies.
This massive logistical effort, which drivers said had been continuing for weeks, is dedicated to supplying the United States and coalition forces grouped along the Kuwaiti and Iraqi borders. Those forces have begun to reposition themselves over the last two days, with US Army and Marine troops moving closer to the front line that had previously been held by Arab units alone.
Although the war against Iraq has so far been mainly a high-tech affair dominated by air strikes, the scene on the road to Hafar al-Batin is indicative of the more traditional war that the men on the ground are preparing to fight.
When they might be called upon to fight, and which units would spearhead an assault on the Iraqi defenses, are questions that Operation Desert Storm strategists have refused to address in public. The indications are, however, that the infantry and armored divisions will be held back for several days yet at the least.
The number of tanks still being transported west on Sunday, for example, suggested that the units they are bound for are far from ready to join battle.
How long fighting on the ground might take is also a subject on which military spokesmen are tight lipped. But all along the front, officers are cautioning against over-optimism.
``We knew we could dominate the skies, but he [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] still has half a million guys on the ground in Kuwait. It's not just `waltz in and waltz out,''' warns Lt. Col. Dennis Hardziej, commanding officer of the US 390th Electronic Combat Squadron, now based in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Bulldozers on either side of the road to Hafar al-Batin were busy on Sunday leveling the surface in order to double its usable width. Meanwhile, in an attempt to shorten the war as much as possible, coalition airplanes have stepped up their strikes on Iraqi troop concentrations in and around Kuwait, officials say.
Iraq's fortified positions are ``probably some of the most formidable defenses which you could ever run into anywhere,'' Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the US Desert Storm commander, acknowledged Sunday.
Expressing confidence that his forces can eliminate those defenses, the general pledged that ``I certainly don't intend to throw American troops, or have the coalition throw their troops, against these barriers where they'd take massive casualties.''
At the other end of the chain of command, and a good deal closer to the fortifications in question, Sgt. Miller of the US 1st Cavalry Division feels exactly the same way.
``We're just waiting for the Air Force to do its job,'' he said here Sunday. ``When they've destroyed everything, then we'll just walk in - that's what we hope.''
Flying almost 2,000 missions a day, in an operation that dwarfs all previous air wars, coalition bombers and fighters have broken Iraqi electronic and materiel communications lines, General Schwarzkopf says, but they have still not succeeded in one of their initial goals - winning air superiority.
Anti-aircraft fire still poses problems, and Iraqi planes continue to put up resistance. The bulk of the Iraqi air force remains unaccounted for, and could still be intact, although US military spokesmen say most Iraqi airfields have been cratered and are unusable.
Cloudy weather over Kuwait and Iraq has hindered air raids in recent days, setting back Schwarzkopf's timetable.
``You want to see the ground defenses. We couldn't do that so we called an abort,'' explained Lt. Col. George Stuart, a US marine squadron commander, after returning from a mission on which more than 40 planes had been unable to drop their bombs.
``It's not a problem of finding the target so much as protecting yourself,'' he added.
The weather and Iraqi hit-and-run tactics have also made Iraqi mobile Scud missile launchers hard to find. Although these missiles have proved militarily insignificant - none of the two dozen fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia had caused any fatalities by last night - their impact on politics and morale have made them high priority targets for coalition bombers.
Schwarzkopf warned the Iraqis on Sunday that he saw ``absolutely no reason in the world why we should terminate the air bombardment any time in the near future.''
The Iraqi response so far has been to hunker down like a cornered boxer, shielding himself from punishment as much as possible behind his forearms, but resigned to absorbing a lot. Saddam has encouraged his people in a radio broadcast by telling them that none of his ground forces and only a fraction of his air force had yet engaged the enemy.
The next question is whether the Iraqi leader will be able to break out with any surprises, or whether the awesome power of destruction focused on his men and machinery by the allies will simply grind him down.