Troops at the Ready
With Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent
Tuesday, March 18, 2003; 11 a.m. ET
About 250,000 U.S. and British troops are now in the Persian Gulf region poised to attack Iraq when President Bush decides to give the go-ahead. War seems certain. There have been reports out of Kuwait of a perceptible pick-up in military activity on their side of the Iraqi border as the U.S. and Britain called time on diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis. American workers are being urged to leave the area.
Are the allied troops ready to mount an invasion? How vulnerable are they in Kuwait? What is the mood there?
Washington Post foreign correspondent Susan B. Glasser was online from Kuwait City Tuesday, March 18 at 11 a.m. ET, to talk about the servicemen and women who may be the first ones to confront Iraq.
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: Susan, thank you for being with us today from Kuwait. Can you give us an assessment of what is happening there right now in light of President Bush's speech last night giving Saddam Hussein an ultimatum? What are people there saying and doing today?
Susan B. Glasser: Hi there... Kuwait is not surprisingly braced for imminent military action. In the north of the country, which is entirely a closed military camp, thousands of troops are on the move, heading into their forward staging areas. Here in civilian Kuwait, people are doing their final pre-war preparations--lining up at gas stations, ATM machines, stocking up on bottled water. There's a sense here that it's only a matter of a short while now.
Shirlington, Va.: In the 10+ years since the last time masses of Iraqi soldiers surrendered, there has been a dramatic increase in suicide bombings. Have U.S. troops been given more explicit instructions this time around regarding how to handle "surrendering" soldiers who may be on a suicide/martyr mission?
Susan B. Glasser: This is clearly a major concern for the military forces as they plan for the push into Iraq. Anticipating large numbers of surrendering soldiers, especially in southern Iraq, they are worried about how to sort out potential security threats mixed in with large groups of non-threatening soldiers or civilians. The idea in general is to encourage the Iraqi military to 'capitulate' on its own, rather than all be taken prisoner by the U.S.
Toronto, Canada: What countries are currently represented militarily in Kuwait?
Susan B. Glasser: Well, the 'coalition of the willing' assembled by President Bush is certainly a much smaller one that that assembled by his father here twelve years ago. The most significant military force here other than the US are the British, who are expected to have more than 40,000 in the Persian Gulf theater, including some 25,000 land forces here in Kuwait. Other than that, there are specialized units here from the Czech Republic and Germany that are here to deal with consequences of a potential chemical or biological attack, and a Polish contingent as well. There's a Persian Gulf states force (Saudi Arabia, etc.) but they are here only to protect Kuwait, not to fight inside Iraq.
Denver: Ms. Glasser:
How's the weather? Will that affect our troops ability to use the equipment they've been given? I've seen these horrendous chemical and biological agent prevention suits that must be impossible to wear and maintain your agility. While WE care about the welfare of our troops and are protecting them with gear, the Iraqis all appear to be lightly garbed with little care about chemical and biological warfare. Will this provide the Iraqis with unfair logistical advantage simply because they don't care if their troops suffer long-term health effects?
Susan B. Glasser: The weather is clearly a huge factor here... as I sit a major dust storm is expected overnight, conditions that will make it impossible possibly to do many of the key things an invading force would want to do (like fly helicopters). And every day the weather is getting hotter -- last April 1 it was 100 degrees F. here in Kuwait. The U.S. military says it's prepared to fight in any temperature, but it's clear from talking to commanders and soldiers alike that this is about as late as is realistically possible without really changing the way they do things to account for the heat.
Washington, D.C.: Are a lot of Iraqi soldiers expected to give up the fight early and surrender to the U.S./British forces?
Susan B. Glasser: Military planners here are anticipating tens of thousands of surrendering soldiers, in particular in southern Iraq, as it's expected that Hussein will pull back his most elite fighting troops to form a defensive ring around Baghdad. The question, of course, is how much surrendering Iraqis will slow down a possible U.S. march toward Baghdad, how well equipped the military is to deal with large numbers of surrenders.
Castle Shannon, Pa.: Forgive my ignorance in geography. Just how far from Baghdad is Kuwait?
Susan B. Glasser: Good question, and one we've been asking too... I believe it's about 325 miles or so from the Kuwait border to Baghdad. We're told that with a clear road it's about a six hour ride on the highway from Basra to Baghdad.
Culpepper, Va.: How are you getting your news information? Are you free to get out and go where you want? Are you escorted? Is news disseminated in regular briefings? How is this working?
Susan B. Glasser: The military has tried a major experiment with the news media here in Kuwait, "embedding" hundreds of reporters inside military units, giving them lots of access, etc. However, it's much harder to operate 'unilateral,' outside the framework of that program. It's not possible just to go to the military camps, for example, and interview people, and regular news briefings have not been conducted here on the ground in Kuwait. But the access to military units and the attack itself is probably the most since Vietnam.
Washington, D.C.: Susan, are you safe? What precautions are in place to protect the safety of the media personnel?
Susan B. Glasser: Seem to be getting lots of safety questions... Of course, we don't know what's going to happen. But all the reporters here are quite well equipped, with gas masks and chemical suits, kevlar flak jackets and helmets, lots of satellite telephones that may or may not work.
Sedona, Ariz.: If Saddam Hussein knows that the U.S. is about to attack, wouldn't it be in his best military interest to attack our forces with his "non-existent" chemical weapons first, before we can effectively launch our attack?
Of course this exposes his "lies" but at this point he may be willing or wanting to inflict as much damage on our troops to try to turn world opinion against U.S.
Susan B. Glasser: This is the $64,000 question here right now... will there be a pre-emptive attack or not? My sense is that Kuwait would be a likely place for Hussein to strike out at, and the military here is certainly taking that possibility seriously.
Washington, D.C.: Can you please explain the "capitulation agreements" between the U.S. troops and Iraq?
Susan B. Glasser: The idea behind the 'capitulation' agreement is that the U.S. military will hope to avoid incurring formal obligations to treat these surrendering Iraqi soldiers as prisoners of war. This has been researched, down to the level of the lawyers, in hopes of enabling the U.S. military force to concentrate on pushing ahead militarily in its attack and not bogging down setting up POW camps for what could be many thousands of Iraqi soldiers. It's also a way to encourage the idea among the Iraqi civilian population that the U.S. is waging a war against the leaders of the regime, as opposed to the ordinary men pressed into Iraqi military service.
Alexandria, Va.: What do the everyday people of Iraq and Kuwait think of the American presence there?
Susan B. Glasser: Well, we don't know yet what the Iraqi response to a U.S. occupation will be, but there are certainly indicators from around the Arab world that it will not necessarily be an entirely welcome presence. Even here in Kuwait, which owes its existence to the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf war, the U.S. military presence has been controversial, a rallying point for a politically powerful minority of Islamic fundamentalists in Kuwait.