WORLD

America digs in for war

An eyewitness reports from the front

September 3 1990
WORLD

America digs in for war

An eyewitness reports from the front

September 3 1990

America digs in for war

WORLD

SAUDI ARABIA

An eyewitness reports from the front

Last Tuesday, Maclean’s Washington Bureau Correspondent Hilary Mackenzie flew on a Swissair jet from Zurich to Riyadh, becoming the first Canadian reporter to enter Saudi Arabia during the current crisis in the Persian Gulf. Mackenzie then travelled overland northeast to Dhahran and along the Gulf, where she was able to interview U.S. servicemen as they dug in to their sweltering desert encampments. Her report-.

The flight to Riyadh was fully booked, mostly with returning Saudis. I asked two Saudi men, dressed in their traditional long, white tunics and headdresses, if they had any qualms about travelling back to a turbulent region that could soon erupt in a devastating war. Enjoying wine and cognac, forbidden under Islamic law, but safely seated far from the view of their wives and children, they replied that the situation was so grave that they had cut short their vacations in Europe—and that they would be willing to die defending Saudi Arabia.

Donning a long-sleeved sweater to cover up my bare arms, and pulling at my hem, hoping that it would meet the test of traditional Islamic modesty, I walked off the plane and into the air-conditioned, postmodern Riyadh International Airport. Saudi women, peeking through their black veils, glared frankly at me, and I was relieved to see a Canadian diplomat, who had come to meet me, but who wished to remain anonymous. “You might have noticed that it is not just the length of the dress or the sleeves or even the use of a shawl,” the diplomat scolded, staring at my red dress. “There is only one color women wear— black.” I presented customs and immigration officials with my so-called Unaccompanied Female Form that allowed me to travel as a single woman and to check in alone to a hotel.

Outside in the 38° C evening heat, life appeared deceptively normal. On the road to town from the airport, families sat on brightly colored carpets at the edge of the desert and enjoyed a late-night meal—a Saudi ritual. Riyadh itself, built around the Al Musmak for-

tress and the fortified Quasr Murabba palace, which once belonged to the nation’s founder, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, is a concrete boomtown catapulted into the modem age by a gush of oil money. It is a place of construction cranes and massive shopping malls and housing proj-

ects. The wide boulevards are lined with government ministry buildings in daring architectural styles, including the flying saucer-shaped ministry of the interior.

But the air of crisis was also palpable. Panicbuying of food staples and bottled water followed the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait and fear mounted that Saudi Arabia would be next on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hit list. The conservative Saudis also appeared overwhelmed by the massive influx of battle-ready, desert-camouflaged American servicemen into their smart downtown hotels. Said one Saudi official: “I don’t think that they should wear their camouflage fatigues off duty. But maybe they didn’t bring a change of clothes.”

The crisis spawned another radical departure in Saudi life. Accustomed to one daily newscast, with turgid Arabic music playing in the background, the Saudi media initially ignored Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the subsequent deployment of U.S. forces to the region

and the deep divisions that have emerged between Arab countries. It was not until Aug. 7, five days after Iraq’s attack, that the leading local newspapers, Al-Gezira and the Saudi Gazette, began to cover the story. Now, however, they are splashing it across their front pages, while Saudi TV provides repeated reports of caustic messages sent from one Arab leader in the region to another. Said Canadian Ambassador Allan Lever: “ Glasnost has penetrated the newscast.”

With social customs unchanged, however, a woman cannot rent or drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and I had to rely on a Saudi contact for the four-hour, 420-km trip between Riyadh and the eastern provinces on the Gulf. It is in this region that the Americans are digging in to protect Saudi Arabia and its vital oil interests

from an Iraqi invasion—the U.S. defence department has barred reporters from disclosing exact locations and numbers of troops. “Power in the region needed balance,” said my contact, a Saudi businessman, cruising along the sixlane highway towards the Gulf through barren sand dunes and under special overpasses that allow camels and Bedouin tribesmen to cross the road. “Israel was too powerful,” he added, “and Iraq was the balance. We made Saddam a hero. We gave him our money to win the war against Iran. But we did not expect him to use his force against us and to stab us in the back.” In the bustling coastal town of Khobar, an Egyptian restaurant manager named Ashas El Sransawy said that tensions have taken their toll on business. “The Saudi families are leaving,” he said. “Nobody is coming here.” He added with a laugh, “Except the Kuwaitis, but they haven’t got money”—a reference to the thousands of Kuwaiti refugees who have escaped into Saudi Arabia. As he turned off the

lights and closed the metal gate for the half-hour call to prayer, El Sransawy said, “Nobody knows how it will end, but I hope there is no war.” Further north, thousands of crew-cut marines were readying for just such an eventuality. Lt.-Col. Aguilar, who did not give his first name, a squadron commanding officer standing

on the tarmac before scores of menacing Apache and Cobra helicopters, declared: “We’re over here to defend the Saudis from Iraqi aggression. We’re prepared for war. My guys are completely ready to go in the next few days.” After three weeks’ training in the jungles of Panama, the marines spent one day at

their home base in California before being dispatched to Saudi Arabia. “This is a little closer to reality,” said Aguilar. “There’s enough adrenaline pumping. These guys are proud of what they do and they are proud to demonstrate it.”

The marines have enough supplies to withstand a 30to 60-day ground and air attack. They seemed hesitant to guess how long they might be staying in Saudi Arabia. One sergeant named Richard (regulations initially allowed only commanding officers to be identified by their full names) said, “I’m hoping it’s no more than six months.”

Under an unrelenting 50° C sun with a clear sky, the 7th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, along with its air, ground-combat and support units, were practising for the possibility of an Iraqi chemical attack with deadly nerve and mustard gases. Already sweating profusely in their desert camouflage fatigues, ö they donned heavy, protec2 tive chemical suits, including e. masks, gloves and boots that ^ made them even hotter. Fully I clad, the marines then prac1 tised the art of drinking was ter through special nozzles on the suits—the Americans require five gallons of water daily to survive in the desert, compared with only three for the acclimatized Saudis and Iraqis. Said a 23-year-old sergeant named Richard: “It’s really muggy in here. I wouldn’t want to fight in it. My movement would be slowed.” But as Lt.-Col. Chris Cortez

added, “It’s better than dying.”

At that point, an officer gave me a firsthand sense of what it felt like, pulling a gas mask over my head. Talcum powder allows it to slip on easily. But the airtight rubber mask sticks close to the skin. There are two shatterproofglass eyepieces. It is an extremely claustrophobic experience. When someone tries to talk wearing a gas mask, it sounds on the outside as though he is talking through a tin can.

The practice drill ended with the commanding officer teaching the group a chilling lesson on how to inject themselves with an antidote to the paralysing effects of nerve gas. “If the gas is sprayed,” he said, “administer the injections quickly. You can’t screw around. Find a meaty part of the thigh or the buttocks. Push it in slowly and push it in firmly.”

Nearby, more marines, standing under large beige-and-green camouflage nets that blend into the desert, staked out positions with their M60 machine-guns. A 23-year-old corporal named Gary, wearing a flak jacket, said: “I’m very proud to be American. I believe the Saudis welcomed us. I hope nothing will happen, but it does seem pretty real.” The marines were also taking instruction in desert warfare, including how to avoid the dangerous fauna—rats, black cobras and killer spiders. Other servicemen drilled with their weapons. Capt. Jeremiah Walsh, the weapons-company commander, said that they are acutely aware of the suicide bombing of a marine compound at Beirut airport in 1983, which killed 239 Americans. Said Walsh: “It’s like a vow among us not to let Beirut happen again.”

The weapons-team co-ordinator, a 36-yearold captain named Jess, said that the whole exercise was “like a football team gathering for the Sunday game—you can just see the intensity.” The marines could also see, looking out across the steaming desert, the prospect of a brutal war. □