SOUTH OF KUWAIT-IRAQ BORDER – The U.S. Army launched its biggest maneuver in the Kuwaiti desert since the Gulf War on Saturday, throwing thousands of soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles into live-fire exercises to sharpen their skills ahead of a possible new war with Iraq.
The operations got under way as the threat of war increased with declarations by U.N. arms inspectors that Iraq failed to fully account for its banned weapons, and the United States struggled for diplomatic support to declare Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in "material breach" of U.N. resolutions.
News of the latest diplomatic confrontations sharpened the expectations among soldiers of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, as they rumbled forward in tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles Saturday for two days of live-fire maneuvers in the windblown sands a few miles from the Iraqi border.
"This is the biggest maneuver exercise since the Gulf War," Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Division, told The Associated Press. "It really adds focus to our soldiers. They're already one of the best trained divisions in the army, probably in the world."
Blount didn't answer directly when asked whether the likelihood had increased that his men would put into practice the lethal skills they are refining in the Kuwaiti desert.
"We have to wait for the president to make that decision," he said. "We'd be out here training anyway."
The two-day war games under day and night conditions are one of a series of exercises carried out in the Kuwaiti desert in recent weeks, but these are by far the most intricate.
It seems no accident that reporters and TV crews have been invited along for the maneuvers, and some commanders have pointed out the military show of force was a warning to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as well as a chance for soldiers to rehearse for combat.
While American officials have said President Bush has not yet decided to launch a war, it appears ever more likely he'll do so soon. One Friday, an administration official said on condition of anonymity that Bush had authorized a doubling of the 50,000 U.S. troops now in the Gulf.
The 2nd Brigade, the largest U.S. force deployed in what is expected to be the launch pad for any invasion into Iraq, sent its M1A1 Abrams tanks and other armor forward against positions prepared to resemble Iraqi trenches and minefields supported by armored vehicles.
Fire from 120mm cannons and mortars thudded down to kill theoretical enemy defenders, and 300-foot chains of linked explosives were fired onto minefields and barbed wire to open paths for the American armor to roll through.
Soldiers with M16s dismounted from their Bradleys to clear the trenches, and the phalanx of armor swept deeper into the desert as helicopters flew overhead.
Blount's initial judgment was that the operation was a success, and he said the tense regional context "adds a little realism."
The United States has kept a brigade-sized force in Kuwait as a deterrent against Iraqi attack since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. That mission officially has not changed, and no huge prewar buildup of forces has taken place similar to the Gulf War a decade ago.
Kuwaiti leaders have said they will allow U.S. forces to launch an attack on Iraq from their small, oil-rich state only if the use of force is sanctioned by the United Nations.
But on the ground, the soldiers are clearly aware that they would form the core of any invasion into Iraq.
On their gun barrels, they have painted names that include the flight numbers of the Sept. 11 airplanes that were hijacked, as well as a threat that now seems more timely: "All the way to Baghdad."
"I kind of feel sorry for them," said 1st Lt. Ryan Kuo of Reno, Nevada. "It is not like 10 years ago. The weapons we have now don't miss."