In Kuwaiti desert, US supremacy mixes with bravado

With the wait waning and confidence rising, US troops look past combat, chemical threat to quick victory.

What's on the mind of an Army general on the brink of war?

Ice vendors in Baghdad, for starters. Next, gilded baths.

"I saw some satellite imagery of [Saddam Hussein's] palaces last night - we have some potential set-ups," Brig. Gen. Louis "Bill" Weber tells troops manning a remote missile battery near the Iraqi border. "I have visions of getting into some gilded bathtub with captured Republican Guards fanning me," he says to the laughter of the soldiers.

General Weber, assistant commander of the now 20,000-strong Third Infantry Division, is a long-time armor and cavalry officer, Middle East expert, and combat veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. His swagger is aimed partly at bolstering the morale of his troops, but it also reflects the supreme confidence - bordering on bravado - of US commanders leading the charge.

"The world will be surprised at how quickly things will unfold and how fast we'll be in Baghdad," predicts Weber as his Humvee speeds across the Kuwaiti desert, kicking up dust. Coining a phrase, he asserts that the US-led coalition will "schwack Iraq."

Only time will tell whether such optimistic forecasts prove true. Yet for Weber and others, the confidence derives from a simple calculus: Since the last war here, the US military has vastly improved its technology, intelligence on Iraq, and experience in desert warfare, while Iraqi forces and equipment have stagnated.

The opening air strikes of the war are expected to rain down on Iraqi targets four times the missiles in one-tenth the time used during the Gulf War air campaign, Weber says. One of the main targets: Iraq's elite Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard divisions defending Baghdad. "The Air Force will be very effective against them," says Weber.

Soon after the air war begins, US ground forces will flow into southern Iraq in a massive front, with the Third Infantry Division alone creating a huge formation more than 60 miles wide and 120 miles deep, Weber says. With this invasion force proving US determination to unseat the regime, the regular Iraqi army is not expected to put up much of a fight. Indeed, many of these soldiers are already carrying civilian clothes and have prepositioned money and safe houses in order to desert at the first opportunity. "Our assumption is that they will capitulate," Weber says.

Such confidence also explains why US commanders are willing to execute a "rolling start" to the war, even without the Army's Fourth Infantry Division and other forces in place.

Weber and other officers downplay the threat of Iraqi use of chemical weapons, casting doubt on Iraq's ability to deliver chemical-filled munitions effectively on moving US forces.

The general does admit to some concerns, including the uncertainty of a battle for Baghdad if the regime does not collapse on its own. The potential for unrest in post-war Iraq is also troubling, and could require reinforcements of additional US troops. But Weber's main worry is strikingly mundane - that accidents and inattention could cost US troops their own lives. The Third Infantry Division has a wealth of experience fighting in desert terrain. Elements of the division fought in the Gulf War, and its equipment is mostly painted tan instead of the traditional olive green.

A native Texan, Weber served in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment that spearheaded a ground attack during the Gulf War. His unit battled Republican Guard forces for much of the ground campaign. His military career includes tours in Germany, Haiti and Bosnia. A graduate of Texas A&M University, he is a self-described "Army brat."

Troops who have served with Weber say he is known for shoring up the dignity of every soldier, no matter whether they are truck drivers or cavalry officers. "He took care of the troops," says Master Sergeant James Doering, of the 1-39 battalion food service, and a former comrade of Weber's. "The cooks are often not thought of as soldiers, but he brought back our pride."

Visiting troops awaiting the orders to roll out, Weber pays a call on a group of 1-39 soldiers who have been in Kuwait manning missile launch batteries since August.

"Anything I can do to help?" Weber asks.

"Put us over the berm, sir," comes the reply.

In a parched encampment where laundry lies bleaching on gun shafts, Sgt. First Class Danny Sanders does have one request. "I've got a staff sergeant who keeps asking me where the ice-cream truck is, sir." "We'll have to buy that on the local Iraqi economy," Weber jokes.

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