First wave of U.S. troops must clear Iraqi land mines WAR IN THE GULF

January 29, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- A potential first wave of U.S. soldiers is grimly preparing for having to clear thousands of land mines sowed by Iraq as part of a defensive system intended to slow tanks and infantrymen leading a ground assault into Kuwait.

The mine-clearing preparations are part of a strategy designed to ensure that U.S. ground forces remain highly mobile against enemy tanks and artillery, the opposite of the strategy Iraq appears to have adopted for its own dug-in troops.

U.S. officers say Iraq is counting on a land battle that unfolds at the slowest possible speed, giving Iraq's enormous batteries of artillery time to make themselves felt.

For Iraq, the ideal would be for land mines to trap infantrymen into a nightmarish replay of World War I. If all went according to plan, soldiers would have to chose between going through uncleared minefields and into barbed wire and trenches that might be set aflame. In either case, the soldiers would become easy targets for the Iraqis.

Officers say satellite photos show that Iraq has created a minefield 30 miles long and a half-mile wide between the Saudi border and Iraqi positions inside Kuwait, with belts of mines alternating with tank ditches and other obstacles. There also is evidence that Iraq is building a mine belt around Kuwait City.

Marine Maj. George Cutchall estimated that Iraq already has placed at least 500,000 mines and has stocks of up to 20 million more. "Kuwait is going to be turned into one big minefield," he told pool reporters. "This guy knows what he's doing, and he likes mines."

By all accounts, Iraqi commanders are trying to make use of experience gained in their war against Iran. Iraq demonstrated its expertise in building defensive trenches and bunkers, positions almost impossible to dislodge except through hand-to-hand combat.

Iraqi forces also relied on vastly superior numbers of tanks and other artillery, a numerical advantage Iraq maintains. What the artillery lacked in precision was more than made up by sheer firepower and enormous ammunition stocks.

U.S. forces are depending on air strikes to make a ground conflict more nearly thinkable. Air raids are targeting Iraqi artillery positions, while in the first stages of a ground invasion troops would also count on Apache helicopters attacking Iraqi tanks, beginning at night.

Even if air strikes accomplish their goals, ground commanders foresee large numbers of casualties. According to officers familiar with official estimates, Army doctors have been told that 10 percent of the front line combat units would become casualties during the first 30 days.

Medical personnel attached to the Army's 1st Armored Division report that they have spent recent days unloading emergency supplies of morphine and casualty blankets. "We get a lot of classes on trauma, trauma, trauma," said Spec. Russell Page, a medic. "They say, 'Expect a lot of blood.' "

Ground force officers are in no rush to take over from the Air Force.

Among those least anxious for ground fighting to begin are combat engineers, the troops who would be among the first to cross into Kuwait and have the hazardous job of clearing the minefields.

Their training and techniques range from the distinctly low-tech to the stunningly sophisticated, from wooden stakes plunged blindly into the ground to satellite information that allows troops to build replicas of Iraqi defenses to study how best to get around them.

Engineers are practicing by using mine detectors to find soda cans buried in the sand and by driving bulldozers that could clear a path for infantry. They also can rely on rocket-launched strings of explosives designed to detonate mines covering a large area.

The main fear is having to clear mines while Iraqis are still firing. "The engineers have the ability to reduce the obstacles," said Maj. Dan Krueger of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. "But if we're going to attack his defenses, it has to be a combined arms operation. Suppression of his ability to fire at us is absolutely the first step."

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