AL SALMI, Kuwait - Several thousand Saudi troops crossed into Kuwait yesterday, the last and probably largest contingent of troops from nearby Persian Gulf states deployed to protect the tiny emirate during a possible war in Iraq.
The column of armored vehicles, troop carriers and tanks on transport trailers took nearly an hour to cross into Kuwait on a four-lane highway six miles east of where Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia meet.
Neither the Saudi commander, riding in the lead vehicle and identified only as J. al-Rouky, nor Kuwaiti officials would specify how many troops were in the convoy or where they were headed. About 30 miles inside Kuwait, the convoy turned left and headed north toward the western border, Kuwait's lengthiest stretch of frontier with Iraq.
Some of the Saudi soldiers, dressed in desert fatigues, helmets and goggles, waved the kingdom's green-and-white flag or raised their rifles in the air, while others flashed victory signs or peered out of tank hatches. Their cargo included boxed munitions, some labeled as "rockets" or bearing orange warning stickers in English.
The convoy represented Saudi Arabia's contribution to the Gulf Cooperation Council's 8,000-member "Shield Force," which is expected to play a defensive role in Kuwait if hostilities break out. Saudi Arabia's military dwarfs those of the other members of the gulf council, which also includes Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
"We are here to help the Kuwaiti troops," was al-Rouky's only comment.
Their arrival marked the first time that Saudi troops have been stationed in Kuwait since they left in 1994 at the end of a three-year deployment spent helping Kuwait recover from the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Kuwaiti officials welcomed them at the border.
Lt. Col. Jasim al-Fadallah, a Kuwaiti army officer and spokesman for the gulf council, emphasized that the Saudis' purpose is to defend Kuwait, not to attack Iraq.
"They are ready to defend Kuwait in whatever ways necessary," al-Fadallah said.
About 230,000 U.S. military personnel are in the region, with about 60,000 more en route.