U.S. Troops Make Last-Minute War Preparations

Long columns of U.S. troops, armored vehicles and trucks advanced through swirling sand toward the Iraqi border Wednesday, positioning themselves to invade on short notice.

With just hours left before President Bush's deadline for Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, commander of 3rd Infantry Division, ordered his 20,000 soldiers and 10,000 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and fuel trucks to line up near the border.

The soldiers had slept under the stars after packing their tents into the back of their convoy, where they will likely stay until the worst of the fighting is over.

The 3rd Infantry Division is the only armored force in the region and is likely to attack Iraqi defenses head-on in the event of war. Troops of the 101st are expected to be flown in on helicopters to seize key installations ahead of the 3rd Division.

At the Army's Camp New Jersey, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division' 3rd Brigade summoned his officers for a "battle update" briefing. "We are one day closer to making history, everybody," said Col. Michael Linnington.

About 300,000 troops -- most of them from the United States, about 40,000 from Britain -- waited within striking distance of Iraq. Backing them are scores of attack helicopters and more than 1,000 airplanes.

At sea, the aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman moved a step closer to war footing, getting ready to conduct operation flights around the clock.

Near the war zone, commander Tommy Franks hunkered down with other top military officers at the forward command center in Qatar, about 700 miles from Baghdad.

"He wants to make sure that the commanders have thought about every possible contingency that you can," said U.S. Central Command spokesman Jim Wilkinson said of Franks.

"But he also is realistic enough, and has been around enough, to know that every military plan changes once the first bullet's fired."

Equipment, supplies and troops continued to arrive in Kuwait, where most of the U.S. and British ground troops preparing to invade Iraq were awaiting their final orders. Military officials said there was no last-minute surge in activity at Kuwait's ports and airfields because front-line units were already prepared.

In the desert near the border with Iraq, U.S. troops packed up their gear and loaded it onto cargo trucks and armored vehicles. Soldiers said they were a bit apprehensive but ready to move into Iraq.

"I'm kind of excited, wanting to see if we go north. The faster we do, the faster we go home," said Spc. Servando Diaz of San Jose, Calif.

The aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk met with an ammunition ship, the USNS Flint, to load more 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs and Phoenix air-to-air missiles. Crews waited to load the weapons onto the carrier's F/A-18 and F-14 warplanes.

"We might be able to use them quickly," said Capt. Thomas A. Parker, the carrier's commander. "We've got some room down below, so we're going to fill her up with as much as we can hold."

U.S. officials also continued planning for governing Iraq after Saddam. The man who would be Iraq's civil administrator after the U.S. takes control, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, was in Kuwait as those preparations continued.