U.S., foreign troops show varied viewpoints of crisis

December 03, 1990|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

IN EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- If Arab soldiers are to join American forces in an invasion of Kuwait or to confront Iraqi troops within Iraq itself, Maj. Adel Khalid Khaliqa of the Egyptian army, stationed with a commando unit near the border, hasn't been told.

Neither has the Kuwaiti captain attached to a tank brigade sharing the same region of Saudi Arabia's northern desert, a numbingly flat sea of hard-packed sand. Captain Ali, as he identifies himself, says his only orders are to stay put.

As for the Saudi general at an underground headquarters nearby, he and his ever-present U.S. advisers have other concerns before they begin preparing for crossing borders -- such as drilling Saudi troops to remember to use camouflage netting over tents or to switch off TVs in the tents during blackouts.

Arab forces allied with the United States seem to have no intention of going anywhere, above all else Baghdad. "Iraq, that is forbidden to us," Major Khaliqa said last week at the Egyptians' base, where the season's first rains threatened to turn the reddish sand into a sea of mud. "Kuwait, maybe, but I don't think we're crossing the border."

Judged by what Saudi authorities allow visitors to see, the United States and its Arab allies appear to be preparing to fight altogether different wars to end Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. The differences reflect the separate military missions assigned to each force, but also reflect a divergence in political views.

One difference is in perceptions of the enemy. From President Bush to Army cooks, Americans have become comfortable portraying Iraq as a pariah state led by a dangerous man. Arab soldiers see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as no less dangerous, but they add that Iraq is a fellow Arab state.

"We don't attack Moslems," said Captain Ali, standing next to one of nine Chieftain tanks his brigade managed to drive from Kuwait into Saudi Arabia soon after Iraq's attack. As for fighting other Arabs, "We will try our best not to do that. We are not going to attack Iraq."

Captain Ali's unit is one of the few that resisted Iraq's invasion, firing rounds at Iraqi vehicles before heading across the desert. He still rankles at Kuwait's failure to put its forces on alert; about a third of his 60 men were on vacation when the invasion occurred.

He continues to wait for replacements to be trained and for new tanks Kuwait's exiled government is buying from Yugoslavia.

Captain Ali and his tanks are among the many small dots on an otherwise empty desert horizon. If there is even one permanent building within 10 miles, it is an invisible one. If there is even one tree within 50 miles, it too is invisible.

The landscape embodies a modern army's dreams and nightmares. Thanks to the flatness of the terrain, a tank can travel at high speed but can also be easily spotted. If enough rain falls to soften the sand, vehicles become hopelessly mired.

Infantry would face few natural barriers to advancing many miles and equally few natural safeguards against attack. An army could muster an almost infinite number of vehicles without fear of clogging roads, but vehicles cannot be hidden behind a hill or in buildings, since none exists.

U.S. and Saudi military planners have tried to take political differences into account by assigning Arab armies the job of protecting the kingdom from an Iraqi attack. If Iraqi troops traveled south across the border, the first sizable forces they would encounter would be Saudis, followed by overlapping lines of Egyptians, Kuwaitis and Syrians.

The Syrians are fiercely loyal to President Hafez el Assad's propensity for secrecy, since outsiders are rarely allowed to glimpse them. Egyptian and Kuwaiti soldiers said that they have conducted exercises with Saudis and Americans but that the Syrians sometimes remained separate.

Much of the training is organized by U.S. officers. About a half-dozen work full time with the Egyptian commando unit, while a group of 40 has been assigned full time to the staff of Maj. Gen. Turki Hedejan al-Nafi, the Saudi officer commanding a brigade that includes tanks and anti-aircraft weapons.

General al-Nafi was uncomfortable discussing his brigade's role and what advice he is getting from the Americans.

What kind of work are they doing?

"Exercises," the general said.

What kind of exercises?

"Military."

Egyptian soldiers at Major Khaliqa's camp are about to begin their fifth month in the desert. Home for them is an almost featureless plain of sand and small stones, a place where falling temperatures have forced everyone into sweaters.

A soccer field has been laid out near the major's tent. Between the tent and the soccer field are stones piled into three small pyramids, a small flag in each, the Egyptian army's trademark.

"It's calm, like in Egypt," Major Khaliqa said without a hint of complaint. He accepts that he might stay here a long time. "Six months, two years, fine" -- anything except moving north, to battle another Arab army.

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