Navy construction battalions are finalizing plans to quickly build camps in Iraq for thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war, in an effort that is also designed to keep Saddam Hussein from being able to claim that captured soldiers are being mistreated.
The camps will be built to prevent a POW uprising like the one among Taliban prisoners near Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, in November 2001, when hundreds died.
Using aerial reconnaissance and other intelligence, Navy Seabees have already picked tentative locations for POW camps, although those plans could change depending on what happened on the battlefield.
In a tour of Seabee encampments on Saturday, Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Engineer Group, reminded his troops about the need for speed.
In a world of instant communications, propaganda about captured Iraqi soldiers could circle the globe in minutes, possibly further inflaming public opinion in the Arab world opposing an expected U.S.-led strike on Iraq.
"I don't want to spend 48 hours of construction before we can put our first prisoners in," Kubic told a group of Seabees in a voice that left no doubt he expects his orders to be followed.
The first camps are likely to be outdoor holding facilities ringed with concertina wire and guard posts, with protective berms and trenches for sanitation.
"Upgrades" will probably have tents or plastic shelters and better sanitation. Medical attention will be provided.
Under the Geneva Convention, battlefield medical personnel are required to render aid to captured enemy forces. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 80% of the casualties treated by American medics were Iraqi soldiers.
Security at the camps, Kubic promised, will be tight, beginning with the construction phase while Seabees are at work with heavy equipment.
"Some of these people are going to be dangerous, and we're not going to fool around with those who have fight left in them," Kubic said. "But it's important to remember we are not going to be running roughshod over this country. We're liberating it. We have no beef with the Iraqi people, just their regime."
Worried that Hussein might use the POW issue for propaganda purposes, the U.S. military is also concerned that he has already begun an all-out campaign of disinformation, including falsely claiming that Iraqi civilians have been killed by U.S. planes striking at radar and antiaircraft stations.
The Pentagon last week announced that the Iraqi army has acquired uniforms that look like those of U.S. forces so that Iraqi soldiers can commit civilian atrocities and blame them on the United States. One reason hundreds of Western reporters are being "embedded" with U.S. troops is that the Pentagon hopes to counteract Baghdad's assertions.
A senior defense official in the region said the U.S. would follow the Geneva Convention rules about the incarceration, feeding, and repatriation of POWs, as it did in the Gulf War, even if there was no need to counter the "Iraqi propaganda machine."
Much of Kubic's give-and-take with his troops involved the arcana of equipment lists, possible convoy routes and communication call-signs. ("You can't be Killer Bees," he told one group. "Everybody wants to be Killer Bees.")
But in one chilling moment, an enlisted sailor asked what would happen if Iraq unleashed chemical or biological weapons. Would the Seabees retreat? he asked. The group fell silent, and the desert wind seemed to howl even louder than usual.
Kubic's answer was quick and unequivocal: The Seabees, indeed, the entire 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, would not retreat if "slimed," which is military jargon for being attacked by chemical or biological weapons. Each sailor, Marine and soldier has been issued a protective suit.
"If we get slimed, we're going up there" to fight back, Kubic said. "We can't stop or we will make that ... the terrorist weapon of choice."
Many of the Seabees -- including a contingent from Port Hueneme in Ventura County -- have been in the Kuwaiti desert since late last year, building roads, airstrips, munitions-holding facilities and barracks for some of the 100,000-plus U.S. troops.