Crossing the Border
With Peter Baker in Kuwait
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent
Friday, March 21, 2003; Noon ET
"OneMarDiv at LD," an officer told the Marines at Camp Commando command center. Translated from warfare jargon that meant the 1st Marine Division had entered Iraq over the Line of Departure. "Into the northern country," the officer said.
The first day of the ground war had begun Thursday for Marine commanders when an Iraqi cruise missile exploded in a fireball just outside the camp. The Iraqis were beginning to blow up their own oil wells and by evening the Marines abruptly launched an invasion not due for another four hours.
Peter Baker, Washington Post foreign correspondent, was online direct from Camp Commando in Kuwait, Friday, March 21 at Noon ET, to discuss military maneuvers and the challenges of an invasion force.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: You wrote about "the war coming to the Marines" in Camp Commando yesterday when an Iraqi cruise missile hit just outside your location in northern Kuwait. Then the troops started moving in. What's happening right now?
Peter Baker: Right now the Marines have just captured the Rumeila oil fields in southern Iraq. It is the mainstay of Saddam Hussein's economy and is a critical objective because U.S. officials feared he might destroy them in a scorched earth offense. The Marines today also captured the Persian Gulf port of Umm Qasr where most of Iraq's food is imported. The British allies swept out the Al Faw peninsula in the very southeastern tip of Iraq, seizing its oil shipping facilities.
Vienna, Va.: There seems to be a lot of misinformation being broadcast, most recently on the number of oil field fires. Kuwaiti officials said there were 30 fires burning, then it was retracted and they said it was 7. How do you sift through immediate information disseminated by officials and how does it affect your reporting?
Peter Baker: The first thing you have to know in any war is that the first reports are almost always wrong and you have to take them with a grain of salt. In the case of the oil wells, the U.S. military was in a much better position to know how many wells were on fire than the Kuwaitis so I would not have relied on that Kuwaiti report.
San Francisco, Calif.: How do the Marines approach the city outskirts of a fortified enemy stronghold and has there been any house to house fighting?
Peter Baker: The Marines have not approached any major urban area yet, nor do they want to. The U.S. strategy is to do everything it can to avoid an urban battle and one thing the generals promise is they will not be lured into a block-by-block style fight a la Stalingrad.
Frankfort, Ky.: Is Basra city under the Allied hand yet? If yes, was there any resistance to enter the city?
Peter Baker: No. No coalition forces have approached Basra yet. They would prefer to see Iraqi units surrender and welcome them into Basra rather than fight their way in.
Washington, D.C.: Do the troops over there think they got Saddam Hussein?
Peter Baker: The troops here don't know and the commanders are dubious. After the long and so far fruitless search for Osama bin Laden, U.S. commanders are reluctant to assume anything when it comes to killing or capturing a single man.
Washington, D.C.: Are the Marines getting messages from home? Do they get e-mail? Can they make calls? Do they get to see or hear news broadcasts?
Peter Baker: While they were in rear bases, Marines had access to mail, occasional telephone calls and in some cases, e-mail. But those who have now gone forward to the front will be out of touch for some time. The same with news broadcasts. They're starving for any news around them. They approach visiting reporters to find out what's happening in the rest of the world.
Frederick, Md.: Peter, it seems that our forces are "ahead of schedule" with Iraqi troops surendering and oil fields being captured. Is this what we had expected?
Peter Baker: I would say they're pretty much on schedule rather than ahead or behind. The Marines always wanted to capture these strategic targets in the opening days and now Army units are racing up the road to Baghdad. There is no formal schedule in the sense that events always influence any war but the real question will become what happens in the next few days when U.S. forces start encountering the tougher Republican guard units in the center of the country.
West Des Moines, Iowa: When is the "Shock and Awe" going to start?
Peter Baker: The real shock-and-awe so far has been among Marines -- and reporters -- on the receiving end of Iraqi missile attacks here in Kuwait. At least I'm shocked and awed. But as for offensive actions, U.S. forces are actually following a methodical plan that will apply decisive force in particular instances but may not be quite what some of the shock-and-awe prognosticators had expected. Many officers here consider the concept of shock-and-awe to be a political slogan at the Pentagon and the White House but not a genuine military strategy.
Washington, D.C.: Peter, are you in Kuwait or Iraq?
Peter Baker: I'm at Camp Commando in the northern Kuwaiti Desert where the Marines have their main headquarters. This is where Lt. Gen. James Conway commands the 85,000 Marines and British troops storming into Iraq.
Karachi, Pakistan: Is it possible after the invasion of Iraq there will be no terrorism?
Peter Baker: I don't think even the most optimistic U.S. official would predict that. President Bush has said the war on terrorism will be conducted on many fronts over many years and in that context his administration sees the Iraq war as only one step down that road.
New York, N.Y.: Mr. Baker,
Did anyone really expect Iraq not to set fires to its oil fields?
Peter Baker: Well, it's still not 100 percent clear what exactly happened with the oil wells. When U.S. commanders launched their attack they believed the Iraqis had deliberately set the wells on fire and they still believe so. However, some British officers think it may have been accidental when oil workers were evacuated from the facilities abruptly without shutting down equipment. This is one of those instances where early reports will mean further checking as more information becomes available.
Greenbelt, Md.: Hey, Peter, it's your old colleague, Matt, from the Times. Be careful out there -- seriously. Pete, here's a featurey type of question: What's the worst inconvenience that reporters face covering this war, and what American luxury-type items do you miss over there? Hope you stay safe.
Peter Baker: Hey Matt, good to hear from you. It's been too long. At a headdquarters base like the one I'm at we have it better than the reporters at the front. We no longer have hot meals and we sleep in tents but quick showers are allowed and we're not humping with large packs in bulky suits across the hot sands -- at least not yet. As for what I miss, after four months on the road I'd be happy just lying on my couch at home. Take care Matt. Thanks.
Richmond, Va.: I know you covered President Clinton, and wrote a fine book, "The Breach," about the Lewinsky scandal. Do you think Clinton ever would have waged war in Iraq, even after Sept. 11, the way President Bush is doing? Or would he have been too wary of offending allies?
Peter Baker: That's an excellent question and one that could be debated for hours. Clinton has mostly stuck by Bush in recent months on this question; however, recently he spoke out about the damage being done to long time U.S. alliances. Clinton probably did place more of a priority on multilateralism but he was also constrained in what he could do in the foreign arena by the scandals that made it harder for him to build a domestic concensus behind taking stronger action in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Peter Baker: By the way, thanks for the plug.
Washington, D.C.: What is happening along the Iranian border? Are we leaving Iraqi border guards in place or putting our own troops there?
Peter Baker: That's a question I don't think we've come to yet. I'm not sure U.S. forces reached any border posts next to Iran. But U.S. officials say they want to keep the infrastructure of the Iraqi government in place, meaning bureaucrats, office works and, I presume, border guards so long as they pose no threat to U.S. troops.
Piscataway, N.J.: Are their any CIA agents on the ground in Kuwait that you know of?
Peter Baker: I don't think it would come as a surprise to anyone to find CIA on the ground in Kuwait and in Iraq. But they never seem to come over for interviews.
Brattleboro, Vt.: What's it like to have missiles coming at you? I once heard a F-16 fly overhead at a low altitude and it scared me to death.
Peter Baker: Over the last day or so we've had sixteen alerts indicating possible missile or gas attacks. Some of them were real. Some of them were not. And we watched a Patriot knock down a missile right above us only a few hours ago. Let's say this: The novelty wears off rather quickly.
Norfolk, Va.: Have you seen any of the coalition forces besides the U.S. if so who?
Peter Baker: The British forces are operating under the command of the Marines and we see a lot of them. Theoretically the Australians are here somewhere but we haven't seen any. No one else is participating in the attack, although there are German, Czech and Slovak military chemcial-biological teams here to help respond to any attack on Kuwait. Also, several Persian Gulf states like the UAE and Bahrain and Qatar sent troops to defend Kuwait in case of any Iraqi counterattack, which is mostly a symbolic show of friendship.
Richmond, Va.: Peter,
You've been with troops in Afgahnistan, can you tell if there any difference in the mood or morale of the troops involved in the different campaigns?
Peter Baker: This is definitely a more massive and dangerous undertaking for the military and troops here recognize that they face a greater threat than a shootout with a handful of Afghan tribesmen or al Qaeda terrorists. I was in a Scud bunker last night waiting for an all-clear when I heard a Marine say, "I think I preferred it in Afghanistan."
Fairfax, Va.: First, this chat seems to be a pretty important step in journalism. To get a live, first hand, interactive account of the events is awesome, and The Washington Post should be commended for providing this access.
How are the troops reacting or interpreting all the stories about anti-war and anti-U.S. protests across the globe?
Peter Baker: The troops are very sensitive when they hear about antiwar protests because they interpret that as a lack of support for them. They don't see it as opposition to a policy, for them it's very personal. All that many of these 18- and 19-year-olds know about Vietnam is that soldiers went home and were spit on and were called "baby killers." They're very afraid of ever having something like that happen to them.
Arlington, Va.: Is there any talk of the impending sandstorm some three days off?
Peter Baker: I haven't heard a weather report but that would be bad news. The sandstorms here are nasty and it's hard for troops to live, walk or sleep, much less fight a war. It also hurts air operations.
Budapest, Hungary: Will you be going into Iraq?
Peter Baker: If Gen. Conway goes into Iraq, I will follow him. My role is to cover the command of the Marines. And Marine generals are known for preferring to travel forward when possible.
Peter Baker: Thanks to everyone for participating and thanks for all the really good questions.