Just east of a small knoll overlooking the barren gray flats of northern Kuwait, an advance party of U.S. Marines worked this month to build a camp that would be home to an American military unit for weeks -- possibly months -- ahead.
Bulldozers scraped together enough desert sand to form a perimeter wall several feet high, large generators were installed, and convoys of trucks carrying additional equipment kicked up clouds of dust as they moved slowly toward the site from a main road a few miles away.
The encampment of Marines about 40 miles south of the Iraqi border is part of a rapidly swelling American military presence in the Persian Gulf region following a series of Pentagon deployment orders since Dec. 24. As the arrival of troops accelerates, a clearer picture is emerging of the way an attack against Iraq would probably unfold.
In its reliance on massed ground forces rolling across the Iraqi border, the campaign probably would look more like the 1991 Persian Gulf War than the recent campaign in Afghanistan, defense analysts and current and former Defense Department officials say.
But unlike in 1991, the advance of U.S. infantry troops would probably come early in the war, the analysts say, bolstering rather than following an air campaign. And such an advance would be just one element of a combined force that also would unleash a new generation of precision weapons, surveillance craft and special forces against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's military. The attack also would use helicopter gunships and armored cargo planes to fly some infantry units deep into Iraq.
Tradition With a Twist
The combination probably would resemble a traditional ground advance backed by an air campaign -- but with a twist. After just four or five days of bombing, defense and military officials and analysts say, infantry units would begin their trek into the country. And while Iraqi troops battled the advancing infantry units, a brigade-sized ground force would be flown into the interior of the country, seizing territory at the Iraqi army's rear.
"Once we cross into Iraq, we just want to roll over the first [Iraqi troops] that are willing to fight with such violence and speed that the rest say: 'There's no sense in doing this. It's gonna be all over in a week. What's the sense of hanging on? Let's just run up the flag and say we quit,' " said retired Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar, who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia from 1991 to 1994.
"And that's the whole intent -- to cause the enemy to be terrified and lose his will to fight," he added. "And that has to be done with what is described as mass."
A former military official familiar with war planning said that although at least one division capable of responding to unexpected events could deploy later, "the vast majority of what they are putting there, certainly of what's in Kuwait and what they may put in Turkey, will participate from Day One."
"The implication here is that ground forces are going to play a very large role early on," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
Although still not approaching the size of the army ranged against Hussein in 1991, the U.S. forces assembling in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Turkey and in the waters of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf are sizable. Already, about 155,000 military personnel have been ordered to deploy or been put on alert since Dec. 24, not counting a significant number of reservists and members of the National Guard.
They will join about 60,000 troops already stationed in the Gulf region -- twice the number that have been there at any one time, on average, over the last decade. That number does not include 20,000 coalition troops waging and supporting the Afghanistan campaign.
Privately, military officials say that Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who would command a war against Iraq, wants about 250,000 troops in the Gulf region, not including those dedicated to the Afghan front, if President Bush orders an attack. That means an additional 35,000 or so troops could receive deployment orders in the next few weeks.
The officials say that even with the pace of deployments stepping up, starting an offensive before mid-February would pose problems. Much of the main combat force will have arrived in the region by Saturday, but commanders want time to prepare troops.
Also, the Pentagon is not eager to start operations during the hajj -- the annual Muslim pilgrimage to the Saudi city of Mecca, which takes place in mid-February -- for fear of adding to resentment of the U.S. in the Arab world.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that U.S. forces could strike now if so ordered. But all signs point to later rather than sooner.
Indeed, with the timetable for an invasion appearing to have eroded -- and with France, Germany and others demanding more time for United Nations weapons inspectors to do their jobs in Iraq -- the tens of thousands of troops and their billions of dollars' worth of sophisticated equipment might face an unexpectedly long stay in the desert.
Long Stint No Problem
But Myers said it would be months before a protracted deployment would become a problem. The U.S. could keep its forces in the region in a high state of readiness for "several months, no problem," he said, before training cycles and other considerations would require the military to begin rotating new troops through.
If past is precedent, argues Benjamin Works, executive director of the Strategic Issues Research Institute, a military think tank in Arlington, Va., the phases of the moon would dictate precise timing. The air campaigns over Iraq in 1991, as well as those over Kosovo in Yugoslavia and over Afghanistan, all began on nights when the waning moon didn't rise until 4 a.m. That provided cover for aircraft that might otherwise have been silhouetted against the moon. The next such phase will begin about Feb. 26 and continue for about 12 days.
Uncertainty about the timing of a campaign has hardly slowed the movement of troops and materiel to the Gulf region. Among the forces preparing to head there within the next two weeks are 36,500 soldiers from various infantry units, together dubbed Task Force Ironhorse.
The task force includes 12,500 soldiers from the Army's 4th Infantry Division (Mechanized), based at Ft. Hood, Texas. The unit, known as the Ivy Division, is the army's most modern combat division, outfitted with its most sophisticated information-gathering and command-and-control equipment.
The task force also includes nearly 4,000 soldiers from the division's 3rd Brigade at Ft. Carson, Colo., plus more than 20,000 soldiers from 10 other installations, including forts Sill, Lewis, Riley, Leonard Wood, Polk, Campbell and Bragg.
The Ft. Hood division is the second infantry unit ordered to the Gulf since late December, when 11,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division at Ft. Benning and Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia were ordered to join a brigade of several thousand from the division already in Kuwait.
The two divisions are equipped with Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and other armored weapons and are trained to advance into enemy territory on the ground.
Also mobilized since Christmas have been about 15,000 soldiers of the Army's 1st Armored Division and another 15,000 from its 1st Cavalry Division.
On Jan. 11, 27,000 soldiers and airmen were ordered to deploy, including Air Force crews and an Army airborne infantry brigade. Among aircraft being deployed by that order were Air Force F-117 Nighthawk Stealth fighters and two squadrons of F-16J radar-jamming fighters from Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, designed to strike early targets undetected.
Roughly 23,000 more Marines also are en route to the Gulf. And roughly 35,000 sailors and aviators attached to four carrier battle groups and two amphibious task forces are either in the region, en route or standing by to go on short notice. The aircraft carriers are the Constellation, which is already there; the Harry S. Truman in the Mediterranean; the Abraham Lincoln, which last Monday was ordered to the Gulf from Perth, Australia, where it was being repaired; and the Theodore Roosevelt, in training off the East Coast.
Also last Monday, Britain ordered 26,000 of its troops to deploy to the Gulf in support of the American campaign, joining 5,000 already there.
Schrader reported from Washington and Marshall from Umm al Aish.