Of ‘Saudi Gras’ and War-Zone Souvenirs

<i> From Times staff writers in the Middle East</i>


The spoils of war are already making their way back from the front lines, and in Saudi Arabia, it is the Scud-stomping Patriot anti-missile system that has become the souvenir of choice.

“Our darlings,” one Saudi remarks as he drives by a Patriot battery on the coastal highway that parallels the Persian Gulf. And in a Dhahran hotel a sign goes up: “Trade?” it inquires. “Would like to swap pieces of Berlin Wall for pieces of a Patriot. Contact: Jay, ARD-German TV.”



On a desert air base, 8,000 miles from the New Orleans French Quarter, Louisiana soldiers pool all available resources to create what it’s safe to say is Saudi Arabia’s first Mardi Gras.

Some concessions are necessary for celebrations that members of the 926th Tactical Fighter Group dubbed “Saudi Gras.” The beer is nonalcoholic, the parade queen is an unnamed lieutenant colonel who agreed to dress in drag. The Mardi Gras King, Maj. Craig Haydel of New Orleans, is titled “King Scud.”

“Let’s be sensible about this,” says Sgt. Kevin Eaves of Louisville, Miss. “You can’t do Mardi Gras without alcohol.”



How quickly people become accustomed to the violence of war. A U.S. military officer in Saudi Arabia opens a Central Command background announcement, saying “nothing happened last night"--no planes shot down, no coalition casualties, no naval engagements. Just the usual nonstop bombardment of Iraq and Kuwait.

“It was quiet here,” interrupts another officer. “But it’s not quiet up there.”


Phone lines from Saudi Arabia to the United States are jammed on Valentine’s Day as everyone with access to a telephone is calling home to order flowers for his or her spouse.


At the Dhahran International Hotel, where most American journalists are staying, the management slips a note under appropriate room doors advising: “Valentine’s Day For All You Lovers . . . In the Al Hambra Restaurant on the first floor, candle-lit dinner to warm your hearts on this your Valentine’s Night, February 14.” Attendance is sparse.


As Saddam Hussein makes a heavily conditioned peace offer, Turkish President Turgut Ozal tells officers at his country’s War Academy that Turkey must be bold in its Gulf policies. “We cannot become a great state by keeping to the status quo. That way we will stay a small state forever,” he says, adding a word of advice: “I have learned that you have to make decisions quickly. It is the same in war as in politics. You hit your opponent and he becomes easier to hit. Does a boxer stop fighting then? No, he carries on for the knockout.”

Iraq’s offer briefly brings shouts of elation in northern Saudi Arabia from GIs gathered around TV sets and radios. But the joy quickly subsides when they learn the details.


“The majority of GIs know why we’re here--to get Iraq out of Kuwait,” says Staff Sgt. Joe Anderson, 34, of St. Louis. “That hasn’t happened yet, so for me, I’m just going to keep focused on our mission until it does.”


Members of the 82nd Airborne Division pride themselves on always being ready for a fight. But like the rest of the U.S. troops who now find themselves in Saudi Arabia’s Islamic society, they’ve been on their best behavior for six months now. Throughout the so-called Kuwaiti Theater of Operations, disciplinary problems have dropped to negligible levels.

“When you have no women, no cars and no booze, criminal cases drop through the floor,” says Maj. Chip Luckey, who works in the division’s legal center. “That’s not to say we had a camp full of felons. These are just hard-livers.”



In a bitter confrontation with an American television crew, a Palestinian driver reaching the Jordanian border after a harrowing trip through Iraq says a colleague was killed on the road by allied strafing. He splashes a jerrycan of water on the ground at a newsman’s feet and declares: “That! That is all that remains of my friend.”

The war that President Bush promised would be “quick, massive and decisive” is a month old today. The U.S. command announces at its briefing in Saudi Arabia that the United States has lost two more planes in the previous 24 hours, but still, the assessment of the allies’ campaign seems overwhelmingly optimistic. Every indication is that Iraq’s military machine is starting to crack.

Maybe it will change if there is a ground war, but soldiers on the front lines hardly ever speak with disdain of the Iraqi soldiers. In fact, they seem almost sympathetic to the pounding they are taking. “I figure those guys have families and want to get home just as bad as we do,” one GI says.


In this war, one man, Saddam Hussein, is the subject of the U.S. wrath.