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RAY SUAREZ: Joining me from Kuwait City is Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent for the New York Times. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL GORDON: Hi, nice to be here.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let’s start with the state of the build-up. How many troops are in country right now, and how many are on the way?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, there are well over 100,000 U.S. forces, which basically break down into two rough categories: Marine forces and Army forces. The maneuver units really here on this battlefield are one mass, the marine expeditionary force. There are actually more marines than soldiers at this point in time — and then the fifth corps, which is the command for the U.S. Army. So those are the two main kind of U.S. forces and, of course, the British are here. They have the equivalent of a division, and they’re fighting alongside and under the command of the Americans.
RAY SUAREZ: Those are some pretty big numbers that you’re mentioning. How many of those forces are expected to enter Iraq in the event of an invasion? Is a large portion going to stay behind in Kuwait?
MICHAEL GORDON: Every ground force has a large logistics element, which does have to stay in the rear unnecessarily. But I mean, this essentially is… the invasion force consists pretty much of this. I mean, you have on the Army side you have the 3rd Infantry Division, and they’ve been here quite a while, and they’re in pretty good shape and well prepared.
So our infantry division, it’s really a mechanized division even though it’s called an infantry division, and it’s, you know, on the order of about 20,000 strong. And then there’s the 101st Airborne, which is in the process of getting ready. So that’s another, you know, division, maybe another 15,000.
Then there are the Army elements. There’s the 11th aviation regiment of attack helicopter force. And there’s some sort of odds and sods, and that’s the Army side of things. And then for the marines, you have this marine expeditionary force that’s 50,000-plus; there’s some other elements thrown in there. They also have a very large air wing. The marines have their own air force. So this is one of their largest air wings in history.
RAY SUAREZ: Are the people that you talk to, both at lower- ranking combat people and their commanders, proceeding on the assumption that it’s when and not if an attack goes forward?
MICHAEL GORDON: I think the way most people look at it out here, including the Kuwaitis, I would say, is the issue now is not whether there’s going to be a war or whether the United Nations Security Council is going to decree that there should be a war; the issue is whether when the war occurs, is it going to have the blessing of the Security Council? So I would say the fact that there’s going to be a war is a pretty widespread assumption here.
RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. and some of its other partners have moved a fairly large force, as you’ve described, into a very small country. Have there been any snags, any unforeseen problems?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, Kuwait is a small country, but Iraq is a big country, so they’re going to have a lot of territory to cover fairly soon, but I mean, one of the limiting factors here is I recall that during the ’91 Gulf War Saudi Arabia just had much better facilities. It’s a bigger country. I mean, Kuwait has one real port and one major airfield, so this has been a… sort of like putting a big force through a small funnel, and this has constrained the build-up to a certain extent, so that has been a factor, but there are more forces on the way. And forces will continue to arrive even as the invasion moves ahead.
RAY SUAREZ: If there is a lot longer delay before anything gets started, what do you do with that many people? What do you do with that many soldiers to keep them sort of on task, ready to fight, but also not getting hurt?
MICHAEL GORDON: I don’t really think that there’s going to be a lot longer delay, and most people here don’t really expect that there will be. I can imagine perhaps a delay of a week or a few extra days. I can’t imagine a delay for a month or so. That’s not the assumption here. Basically what they’re doing now is they’re preparing to invade Iraq.
I mean, for example, on the Army side, in terms of the 3rd Infantry Division, it’s very revealing what they’re doing. They’ve created a replica of the sand berm, the sand wall that separates Iraq from Kuwait with the barbed wire and the whole configuration, and they’re practicing crashing through it just as they probably will a week from now or maybe two weeks from now if there’s a delay. That’s what they’re doing.
On the Marine side, they’re moving right up to the border, and they’ve been studying the sort of tactical intelligence about the Iraqis who are deployed opposite them. They’ve been handing out malaria pills because they’re going in to an area that, unlike the last Gulf War, you know, is a little, well, sort of marsh- like. You know, in some of the units, they’ve given out the chemical suits. To me, that’s a very revealing sign because the… they come shrink-wrapped, and they’re very hard to deal with when they’re shrink-wrapped. You have to cut them open and sort of unfold them, and you certainly couldn’t get into it in an emergency.
So when you cut loose the chemical warfare suits and take them out of the shrink wrap and get them ready so you can put them on quickly, the reason that’s significant is they only have a life of about 45 days or so, I think the new suits after you do that because the charcoal lining begins to bake. So when you unshrink-wrap the chemical suits and give them to your troops, and these suits are pretty expensive, you’re pretty much signaling that you expect to do something in a fairly brief, you know, timeframe.
RAY SUAREZ: Has there been distribution of ammunition, fuel, to move vehicles– all in place, being given out, put in a line of March?
MICHAEL GORDON: Well, the ammunition… they’re getting full loads of ammunition. But I mean, all of these sorts of things– you know, practicing crashing through berms, giving out chemical suits, giving out ammunition, they’ve been giving them the final briefings about, you know, how you deal with the dead actually, the things of that sort– all these preparations are going on right now even as the U.N. talks and the French and the British debate what’s going to happen.
Now, you know, I think that the assumption of the military is they just have to go ahead and make these preparations so that when they do get the go signal, as they anticipate, they’re in a position to move forward really in a matter of, you know, hours and not days. You know, a lot of preparations have gone on already that people haven’t really noticed because they’ve sort of gone on under the radar.
For example, huge quantities of fuel have been moved up to the border. They’ve actually created sort of a pipeline in the army that goes back to the Kuwaiti refineries, and they bring the fuel all the way up to the border in huge, what they call “bag farms,” the fuel in a location so they can be trucked north into Iraq. This is actually… that’s a process that has been under way for several months, just no one’s really noticed it. I mean, entire airfields for the helicopters have been constructed in the middle of the desert.
I was here in November and, you know, one or two of these sorts of facilities didn’t exist then, and they exist now. So this has been a very big industrial enterprise which is reaching its natural culmination as, you know, this force, you know, prepares to spring forward for what is going to be a very logistically demanding thrust into the center of Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Gordon from Kuwait City, thanks a lot.
MICHAEL GORDON: Okay, thank you.