Buffer zone near border fills up with traffic

U.S. reinforcements flood Iraq's `demilitarized zone'

WAR IN IRAQ Iraq's `demilitarized zone' fills up as troops rush in

April 05, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

IN THE DEMILITARIZED ZONE, Kuwait -- The name of this place, this "demilitarized zone," has become obsolete, as miles of its desert roads have become filled bumper-to-military-bumper with soldiers and weapons and tons of supplies, an indication of what is to come north of here.

The Pentagon has said that troops and supplies have been steadily moving into Iraq as planned, but during the past several days reinforcements have rushed in and the movement of everything from water to ammunition to tanks has visibly accelerated.

U.S. military vehicles have lined the two main highways leading to this stretch of desert, as far as the eye can see in some stretches. Bright orange flags are attached atop the roofs of the vehicles so that they can be detected by coalition aircraft dropping bombs northward, their direction of travel.

Most of the convoys have come from the south of Kuwait, where ships have been off-loading equipment at a joint-operations base called Camp Patriot and from the country's main port, Shu'Aibah. From there, the trucks, Humvees and tanks roll to this area, which used to be a buffer between Iraq and Kuwait and where any hint of military equipment or personnel was strictly forbidden.

Much of the green-and-tan traffic jam is attributable to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, or MEU, which arrived at Camp Patriot this week with 2,300 personnel and more than 1,000 pieces of rolling equipment -- Humvees, trucks and tanks, equipment that does not roll with any swiftness.

In addition, at least four Army and Navy ships have stepped up their off-loading of ammunition, fuel, water and other supplies that have been slow to make it to front-line troops and even many units far to their south, forcing them to ration food and water while using a brief lull in fighting to let the supplies catch up.

"The load of the 24th MEU put us in a busier state than the normal activities, and the other ships are keeping us moving at a pretty good pace," said Joseph E. Kypel, a Navy petty officer 1st class and spokesman for Camp Patriot. "We've had this kind of activity in spurts before but this has been more or less steady."

The 24th MEU usually operates on a rotating basis in the Mediterranean Sea. After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, it helped provide humanitarian relief for Kurds in Turkey and Northern Iraq. The unit delivered food, supplies and medicine and transported Kurds to havens and refugee camps.

Humanitarian relief, though, is only one part of its capabilities, and military officials will not comment on its tasks in Iraq. It is a force capable of fighting, protecting sensitive U.S. interests and building bridges. In 1995, its members launched the rescue mission for Capt. Scott O'Grady, the Air Force pilot who was shot down over Bosnia and survived on the ground.

Camp Patriot has also been receiving ammunition for the 4th Infantry Division, the tank-heavy unit that has been maneuvering its way south through the Suez Canal to the Persian Gulf because Turkey's government decided not to allow it to off-load there.

The division's first three transport ships arrived at Shu'Aibah Port early this week carrying tanks, artillery and heavy equipment, which are to be met by the 30,000 troops traveling from Fort Hood, Texas.

It is unclear whether the division will bypass fighting in Basra, Nasariyah and other southern cities to join in the battle for Baghdad, or whether it will help clear out what the Pentagon has termed "pockets of resistance," which nevertheless have disrupted supply lines and killed a number of troops.

Unloading the 4th Infantry Division is a major task.

The division has more than 400 tanks in its arsenal, along with a number of howitzers, rocket launch systems, unmanned aerial observation craft, anti-tank and anti-armor AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

The 2nd Armored Cavalry regiment has also rushed here. Orders arrived March 26 to put 500 soldiers and their equipment -- Humvees and Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters -- on C-5 and C-17 aircraft as soon as possible.

About 3,000 troops in the regiment have already left by sea and are scheduled to arrive in a few weeks.

Col. Terry Wolff, the regiment's commander, said their role would be to provide protection for supply lines.

"They said, `Hey, that's what we do well,'" he said before leaving for Kuwait. "It was a little bit of `Let's get going.'"

The regiment's Kiowas are armed with Hellfire missiles, and the Humvees with TOW anti-tank missiles, grenade launchers and .50-caliber machine guns.

The convoys along Highways 80 and 85, which stretch into this zone, seem to be stopped cold as often as they are moving, and when they move, they chug along slowly. Soldiers in the Humvees stand behind automatic weapons that stick through roofs, looking from left to right and straight ahead, wary of the attacks on past lines.

Sun Staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this report.

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