Front-Line Troops Ready, Willing to Wait on Air War

THE concertina of barbed wire that has turned Hafar al-Batin's soccer stadium into a prisoner-of-war camp stretches only halfway around the fence. Workers stopped installing it this week, apparently recognizing that the rows of tents inside will not be put to immediate use. The sense of urgency that had gripped the coalition front lines last week has relaxed, with signs both here and in Washington that a ground assault on Iraqi positions in the next few days is unlikely.

Soldiers who would fight in that campaign generally welcome their commanders' decision to continue bombardment of the Iraqi lines from the air, to weaken them further before committing ground forces to what could be a hard-fought battle.

``If it takes a month to save one soldier's life, then let's take that month,'' says a United States Army captain on his way north from here to rejoin his unit at the front. ``Time and money are immeasurable concepts when you compare them to a soldier's life.''

For some men, though, that sentiment is mixed with growing impatience at sitting in the desert a month after they had thought the action for them would begin.

``We're used to going in and getting the job done,'' Specialist Roger Phelan told a pool reporter accompanying a US cavalry unit. ``Now we listen to the war on the radio and wonder why we are waiting.''

Tension had been rising all along the front until the beginning of this week, growing with every indication that orders for the assault could come crackling over field radios at any moment.

Coalition planes had turned the force of their air strikes against Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait, US military briefers said, in a move that officials had earlier forecast would be an essential preliminary to any ground attack.

Front-line units were edging ever further forward toward the Iraqi and Kuwaiti frontier, and border skirmishes were becoming more common as special forces from both sides probed enemy positions. All eyes were fixed on Feb. 14, with its moonless night as the most likely date.

If Gen. H. General Norman Schwarzkopf III, commander of the US forces, had intended to send his troops in that night, his plan seemed to be put on hold.

After talking with Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, on their return from Saudi Arabia, President Bush announced earlier this week that the air campaign would continue, ``for a while.''

``We are going to take whatever time is necessary to sort out when a next stage might begin,'' he said.

On the ground, at least north of Hafar al-Batin, that declaration appeared to come late into an order to stand down. US armored units whose tanks had to be masked in battle position along the road to Kuwait a week ago were no longer there Tuesday. They had left only a handful of Saudi and Egyptian soldiers to patrol the border. In the distance, a column of armored personnel carriers was kicking up clouds of dust as it rolled southeast away from the front lines.

The coalition forces appear ready, however, to do battle. Many units have had time in recent days to practice maneuvers now that they are in position. And convoys on the main supply route that runs parallel to the front lines are much lighter than they were 10 days ago.

Where once they were transporting tanks, pontoon bridges, and other heavy materiel now most trucks are carrying food, water, fuel, and ammunition.

The convoys are heaviest west of here, and many of the coalition's heavy armored units are believed to have moved well west of their earlier positions to judge by the resupply activity on the road.

This would appear to be unmistakable evidence that the coalition commanders are planning a major assault into Iraq itself, perhaps with the intention of sweeping north and east to attack the elite Iraqi Republican Guard from the rear of its positions along the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border. Other observers have speculated that General Schwarzkopf might be thinking of a drive toward Baghdad, tempting the Guard to try to cut off the attack, which would force them to abandon their defenses.

``He [Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] wants to fight a static war. The allies want to fight a mobile campaign,'' British Rear Admiral James Everly told the British Broadcasting Corporation. ``There are options we have for getting him flushed out of the holes he has dug into.''

In the meantime, unless Mr. Bush's declarations and movements on the ground here are all part of a massive disinformation campaign to deceive Iraqi strategists, coalition troops are digging into their holes and listening to the drone of B-52 bombers.

``They can take as long as they like,'' a British soldier said. ``If it means we all go home, who cares how long we sit around here?''

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