Amphibious Task Force Gears Up

Marines have served as a deterrent by forcing Iraq to keep thousands deployed along coastline

THOUSANDS of United States Marines aboard ships in the Gulf were as surprised as anyone to hear on shortwave radio Sunday morning that the ground war had begun. But they were even more surprised to hear initial reports that Marines had seized Failaka Island off the coast near Kuwait City.

``That was my job; I have no idea where that report is coming from,'' said Marine Maj. John Toolan, somewhat dejectedly, at breakfast aboard this amphibious support vessel. He is commander of one part of the task force that was to take the small island, from which the capital of the occupied emirate would be within artillery range.

The Failaka report proved to be false, an apparent leak attributed to a Kuwaiti news agency and eagerly disseminated by news organizations groping for details during the brief news blackout declared by Washington as the ground offensive began.

The report, however, kept the Iraqis guessing as coalition forces poured into Kuwait and Iraq from the south and west. Having them believe it was a three-pronged attack effectively put more pressure on Baghdad.

``If we're doing our job right, the enemy must be utterly confused at the start of something like this,'' said a senior naval officer. ``You don't want to reduce that confusion level by one iota if possible.''

Largest amphibious force

Up to 17,000 marines have been deployed for months on a 31-vessel task force in the Gulf, ready to land on the Kuwaiti beach at a moment's notice. It is the largest amphibious task force assembled since the Korean war.

But the military postponed any possible landing last week after explosions from Iraqi mines damaged the warships USS Tripoli and USS Princeton. Officials say they discovered more mines than previously expected floating in Gulf waters or fixed on the bottom, a serious problem for any landing operation.

Mine-sweepers have been working steadily to clear the coastal waters. Although a landing could still occur, the vast force has primarily served as a deterrent by forcing Iraq to keep thousands of troops deployed along the coastline.

``Keep in mind the number of Iraqi units we have tied down on the beach. As long as they're watching the coast, they're not engaging our units, which are working in Kuwait now, and further west,'' said Marine Maj. Gen. Harry Jenkins, commander of the Fourth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, one of two such brigades aboard the fleet of ships.

Since last week, sleek Harrier jets based on assault ships have bombed targets on Failaka Island and elsewhere to prepare for a full landing or a smaller-scale raid.

Ship-based helicopters have also flown numerous reconnaissance missions in ``feints'' to simulate the start of a landing, also part of the effort to keep Baghdad guessing.

High-speed landing craft

Should an assault be ordered, marines could both land behind Iraqi lines in helicopters and hit the shore in special landing craft. These include the Hovercraft-like Landing Craft Air Cushions (LCACs), which can skim over the water and right onto land, floating on a cushion of air.

Depending on the weather, the LCACs can travel at more than 50 m.p.h., carrying tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other equipment as well as fully equipped troops.

Eager to fight

Driven forward by two huge propellers above water, the LCACs are an impressive sight as they speed over the seas, churning up immense clouds of mist as they go.

Since their deployment in August, the marines have practised and trained hard for an assault. Hearing that their army and air force counterparts ashore had begun the long-awaited ground offensive made most of the men eager to join in.

``Naturally we would like to get in there and fight, and if we don't many of us will feel let down,'' said Marine Lt. Stephen Cothern on board the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau.

``But we also know that just being here we've kept five Iraqi divisions occupied,'' he said. ``And if you accomplish your mission without any loss of life, that's the best way.''

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