Steaks in the desert carry scent of war

Signals: For Marines in Kuwait, a rare treat for supper joins a growing list of signs that an attack on Iraq is very near.

Deadline For Hussein

March 18, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOUTH OF THE IRAQI BORDER, Kuwait - Members of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines will eat steak for dinner tonight.

There may be no significance to this news. Maybe it's just a break in what has been an endless menu of chicken and rice, chicken with vegetables, and chicken with rice and vegetables.

But among the Marines here in the Kuwaiti desert, far away from President Bush's ultimatums to the United Nations and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and isolated from most television, newspapers and radio, this generous meal is understood to be more than that. It is one of a growing number of signs in recent days that war is drawing very near.

Early this morning, the Marines were awakened before dawn, and many listened to the president's speech to the American public. Bush gave Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq or face military conflict, the clearest sign yet that war is perhaps inevitable.

Marines have been reminded in recent days to write final letters to wives, girlfriends, parents and family. They packed the letters in their sea bags - luggage of excess belongings that were crated up and will be shipped back to the United States.

On Sunday they were asked to open their chemical and biological protective suits to make sure they fit. The charcoal-lined, camouflage-patterned trousers and jackets are designed along with their gas masks to protect them from chemical attack. The Marines had not been allowed to open the suits previously because they are good for at most 120 days. Now that the seals have been broken, there is little doubt they will be put to use soon, many Marines say.

Another hint of war came during church services at Marine Camp Grizzly, at which the chaplain stirred the Marines with a homily that challenged them to be an army of God.

"You are changing the heart of the nation. Your purpose here, brother, is not just about Iraq. Your purpose here is to save the soul of your home," Chaplain Carey Cash told a crowded tent of Marines carrying rifles and grenade launchers, and clutching pictures of wives and children.

Everything these Marines did during the past 48 hours carried with it a sense of finality.

On Saturday, Lt. Col. Carl Mundy, commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, gathered all 1,100 members of the battalion at 6:45 a.m. It was understood to be the last time they would be together until the end of the war or the beginning of a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis.

Mundy stood before the Marines, reviewing the training they had done during the past month and a half in the Kuwaiti desert. He announced that they would be moving out from Camp Grizzly, where they had been stationed for about two weeks, and would camp farther north in the desert.

"The knife's edge is starting to get a little dull," Mundy told them. "We came here to get rest, do maintenance. But too much time here is not what we should be doing. We should be getting our minds prepared for what we should be doing. We need to get the blade sharpened."

The sharpening started just after Mundy's speech when the entire regiment ran together, making two long loops around Camp Grizzly. Later, the Marines were allowed to take a shower, their last, it seemed, before they might cross into Iraq.

The Marines packed their assault packs, tents, sleeping bags, a couple changes of clothes, six ready-to-eat meals. They put pictures of girlfriends and wives inside their helmets. Then they boarded amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs), Humvees and supply trucks and inched northward - closer to the border with Iraq.

"I hope we don't see this place again," said one Marine as exhaust spewed from the AAVs and rumbled out of the relative comfort of Camp Grizzly.

The desert camp they were leaving had showers, portable toilets, tents with electricity and a chow hall where they sat down to dinner with tables and chairs.

By comparison, the desert training area where they were going had nothing to offer except seclusion.

India Company drove in a line of AAVs - boxy armored personnel carriers that crawl across land on metal tracks, but can traverse water if necessary. Inside, it is cramped and reeks of exhaust. As many as 20 Marines ride in each vehicle.

It was a short ride to their desert training area, where under the moonlight India Company set up their tents, ate a dinner of beef stew served off the back of a truck. Everyone went to bed early.

They spent yesterday practicing assaults, reviewing Arabic language training and getting another surprise meal -hamburgers and french fries. Throughout the day and all night, they could see and hear dozens of jet fighters and helicopters racing north and south - yet another sign that war is near.

They plan to do more training today. The next time they get back on the road, it will likely be the road that will lead them to Baghdad.

If they go there, it would be one of the longest trips overland by the Marines since World War II, Mundy said.

"Three hundred miles is a long way," he said. "It will be a challenge for us, but everyone is up to it."

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