Originally created 01/25/03

Huge U.S. troop reinforcements arriving in gulf kept out of sight



KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait -- American troop reinforcements come to Kuwait daily in the biggest military buildup in the region since the Gulf War - but it's hard to tell.

After heavy media coverage of their departure from bases in the United States this week, complete with teary embraces with relatives and their views of possible war with Iraq, the soldiers are landing in Kuwait in near secrecy.

The U.S. government is engaged in a juggling act - advertising loudly to Saddam Hussein that he faces the threat of massive force if he fails to give up weapons of mass destruction, while trying to keep a low profile in the gulf region to ease local sensitivities.

The balance is highly visible - or perhaps invisible - in Kuwait, the largest forward staging area for a potential U.S. ground invasion of southern Iraq.

Troops from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga., this week have been arriving at a military base near Kuwait City's international airport, part of a deployment that will ultimately bring the division's entire 17,000 troops to the region.

Reporters have been forbidden from entering the Kuwaiti base to film or interview the arriving troops. Convoys of buses guarded by machine gun-equipped Humvees and police cars shepherd the Americans to their camps, which are generally closed to the media.

U.S. military spokesmen have confirmed the arrivals are taking place, but will not discuss numbers or units.

"We're not discussing force flows," said Capt. David Connolly, an Army public affairs officer. "We're telling people we're redeploying forces around the world to support the war on terrorism, and that's it."

The military worries the deployment - involving tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines, as well as Navy battle groups and Air Force units around the region - might be seen as indicating an invasion is imminent.

That decision, officials stress, lies with President Bush and the buildup is only to give him forces at his disposal if he judges military action must be used to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

Kuwait was uncomfortable when journalists covering the Army's biggest live-fire exercise since the Gulf War reported comments and took pictures of troops stating their readiness for war - such as a tank with a cannon painted with the words, "All The Way to Baghdad."

Since then, at rare opportunities to meet the troops at Christmas and New Year's or at a boxing tournament, public affairs officers have asked reporters - and told the soldiers - to focus on the celebrations, not war speculation.

At the same time, in reaction to criticism over reporters' lack of access to the 1991 Gulf War, the military is trying to allow more opportunities for coverage.

Kuwait owes its freedom from Iraqi occupation to the U.S.-led coalition that drove out Saddam's military in 1991. The country has hosted a brigade-sized U.S. deterrent force since. Authorities have been staging civil defense drills to prepare the population in case Saddam fires Scud missiles at American positions or at civilian centers.

Ayed al-Mannah, a Kuwaiti political analyst, said the American buildup does embarrass Kuwait, "but the justification is clear: We have no other choice but to support the Americans. Saddam didn't leave us any other choice."

He noted that there is a U.S. military buildup in other countries, but believes the media are concentrating on Kuwait because it borders Iraq.

"Some believe that Kuwait wants revenge, but this is not correct," al-Mannah said. "There is a sort of unjustified dense media coverage. The war hasn't even started."

Around the region, U.S. military personnel try to keep a low profile to accommodate local sensitivities, and troops seldom wear uniforms off base.

Acting under instructions from the State Department, U.S. naval officers in Bahrain will discuss ships at sea in detail, but will not respond to questions about the 5th Fleet's headquarters in the Bahraini capital, Manama.

U.S. Air Force officers in Qatar will describe how their planes refuel fighter jets over Afghanistan, but journalists cannot visit Al-Udeid Air Base, where the planes are based.