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Arab Forces Wave Happily on Road North

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sign at the main border checkpoint into Kuwait says, “Welcome,” but it tilts crazily to one side, and beyond it stretches newly liberated southern Kuwait: an eerie panorama of devastation and spring clover, of a sudden, fleeting violence that passed over the landscape and moved on.

On the coastal desert plains that frame the main highway from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait city, an occasional donkey grazes amid the blown-out wreckage of tanks and supply trucks. The road itself is, for long stretches, little more than a pile of asphalt chunks, churned up by Iraqi forces before they fled north from advancing allied forces.

Government buildings and way stations have been reduced to rubble over weeks of allied bombing raids; stinking oil trenches line the dugouts where Iraqi tanks crouched before falling back to the north, and roaring triumphantly across the battered landscape, hooting and waving, are dozens of Kuwaiti and Saudi soldiers straddling battle tanks still unscathed by war.

In this odd, turned-upside-down landscape, where a wealthy oil emirate looks like parts of the South Bronx and a warm afternoon sun breaks occasionally through the impermeable smoke haze of dozens of burning oil wells, even the prisoners of war looked dazed but relatively cheerful, wheedling cigarettes from Saudi soldiers and greeting visiting journalists with uncertain grins.

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“Ahlan wa sahlan, " said one beaming Iraqi, crouched with several dozen other prisoners near the entrance to this onetime Persian Gulf resort. “Welcome again.” But who was welcoming whom?

War has advanced like an express train through this part of southern Kuwait, with Arab forces encountering little resistance in their advance that was expected to put them in Mina Abdullah, about 40 miles into Kuwait, by sometime today.

Yet in a theater in which Saudi, Qatari, Kuwaiti, and other Gulf forces are operating in discrete pockets, the idea of a battlefront is an evolving concept. “I would say you could draw a line in the sand and you’d find it,” said a U.S. liaison officer working with Kuwaiti troops, admitting that it is difficult even for commanders in the field to keep score. “It’s like a chess game where you’ve got a blanket stretched across the board.”

By Monday, Kuwaiti forces had advanced about 20 miles north of the Saudi border to an area just north of Ras al Zour and were undergoing their first real engagement of the war, a barrage of indirect artillery fire from Iraqi forces farther north. Allied troops responded with a steady boom of artillery that rattled the desert floor for most of the morning.

Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners were flooding by the busload into transition areas along the coast before being transported to permanent Saudi detention camps, and Saudi authorities reported that the number of prisoners Monday had grown to 25,000.

Many of them appeared to be ill-fed, demoralized by the allied bombing barrage and apparently not overly troubled about being in the hands of their Saudi captors.

“God willing, Saddam (Hussein) will fall and this problem will finish,” said one young Iraqi reservist from Basra, being temporarily held at Ras al Zour, in a rare interview with Western and Arab reporters.

“If Saddam doesn’t fall, this Middle East problem will continue. I want to have a special message to Saddam Hussein: He should give up everything; let’s live in peace.”

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Iraqi soldiers, he admitted, have engaged in looting in Kuwait. “We went inside Kuwaiti houses, we broke the houses, we stole everything. It happened,” he said. But the army, he said, has been without food, water and cigarettes for some time.

“What he (Hussein) told us, that Arab countries were going to invade us and take our sisters and mothers and families, it’s not true,” the man complained. “We hope the victor will be the Saudis. It’s senseless that our young people are going to get killed.”

The man was one of a reported 1,000 Iraqis taken captive Monday in the southern coastal region, according to a Saudi commander. Although battlefield officials could provide few concrete details of the conflict, they agreed that most of the surrenders had occurred without fighting, and the account of the prisoner in Ras al Zour concurred with that account.

“As soon as they came, we just raised our arms and we told them we didn’t want to fight,” he said. “As soon as we raised our hands, they welcomed us. . . . I was captured by our brother Saudis.”

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Several commanders said they were surprised, in fact, at the lack of resistance they had encountered thus far in their march through southern Kuwait.

“I thought these two days would be the difficult days, but there is nothing from the Iraqi soldiers,” said Saudi Col. Belal Johani. “In the beginning they fight, but then they surrender, give up.”

Maj. Robert Schoenwetter, a Long Beach, Calif.-based U.S. military adviser to Kuwaiti forces, agreed. “I was surprised. I thought we’d see more (resistance),” he said. “We keep waiting for the boom, for the other shoe to drop.”

Most of what Arab forces have encountered from the Iraqis has been small-arms fire, hand grenades and some artillery, he said. Monday morning, Kuwaiti troops were undergoing artillery hits from an unknown Iraqi location and were calling urgently to U.S. advisers farther back, who were seeking to direct U.S. FA-18s to take out the Iraqi artillery batteries.

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Schoenwetter and other U.S. advisers were unable to make themselves heard on the radio, and there was an air of tenseness both in the Kuwaiti radio operator’s voice in the field and in that of the American advisers attempting to help.

“Thirty-four Bravo. Thirty-four Alpha. Come in. Over,” the Americans said repeatedly.

Schoenwetter shrugged. “I got some young kid yelling over the radio; I couldn’t tell you what.”

Saudi officials, he added, now believe they could be in Kuwait city in the next three days--this estimate in advance of Baghdad’s announcement early today that its troops had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait.

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“The morale is going down. All the soldiers and officers, they are not satisfied from this war,” Johani said. “Today, no resistance. All of the fighters gave up without resistance. Yesterday also, no resistance. . . . Right now, he (Hussein) has lost everything. He’s lost his troops, he’s lost his morale, he’s lost his friends in all the countries, he’s lost everything.”

But U.S. officials were not quite so optimistic. Schoenwetter, before jumping into his Humvee (utility vehicle) to race south in the hope of setting up a better radio connection, was asked who owned Kuwait city.

“The Iraqis,” he said curtly as he snapped shut the door.


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