A Drive Through Desert Storm

Within a few hours of the first bombing of Baghdad, BUSINESS WEEK's Pentagon Correspondent Russell Mitchell was flying to Saudi Arabia. Not long after, he was heading as close to the front as he could get. Here's his report:

Waiting is the main occupation of the 500-odd journalists who have crowded into Dhahran, 200 miles from the Saudi-Kuwait border, to cover the war. So far, the military has allowed only a small minority of us into the field.

There has been little hard information or high drama here. Nearby are key staging areas for allied air strikes on Iraq and occupied Kuwait. Despite the nightly wail of air-raid sirens, the main effect of Saddam Hussein's sporadic missile attacks has been to disturb everyone's sleep, making for some very crabby reporters. Still, you never know when a chemical-tipped Scud might have your name on it, so an air raid sends the heart racing. The real war is up north, where a battle of hellish proportions is gathering. There was no point in sitting around Dhahran all day watching the war play out on CNN. So my partner, BUSINESS WEEK Mideast Correspondent John Rossant, arranged to have a Saudi businessman he's acquainted with drive us as close to Kuwait as we dared go.

ROYAL RESCUE. Tooling his four-wheel-drive vehicle through oases of date palms, Mohammed--not his real name--talked of the war and politics. He made it clear that not all Saudis are pleased that American troops and tanks are about to wrench Kuwait from Saddam. Many upper-middle-class Saudis such as himself harbor a nagging belief that the Americans and the British are here to fight for oil and to protect royal families they see as autocratic and corrupt. In Saudi Arabia, millions of dollars are channeled into "commissions" that feudal princes skim off the top of big business deals.

As we drive north, the date palms quickly give way to desert, a scrubby expanse of rock and sand even bleaker and uglier than it seems on TV. Fences are set up alongside the road to keep camels off. Locals report that a head-on collision with a camel can be fatal to both man and beast: The car slams into tall, spindly legs, while the camel's 1,800-pound body crashes down on the roof.

As we keep heading toward Kuwait, Mohammed weaves through long convoys of military supply trucks. The Saudi government has heaped praise on the hopeful liberators of Kuwait, but Mohammed views the war with apprehension. He's no fan of Saddam. Still, he complains that the U. S. "never gave sanctions a chance to work. They never really tried for an Arab solution."

BABY-BLUE BUSES. Mohammed smooth-talks us through several Saudi military checkpoints, set up near gas stations in the middle of nowhere. Through the desert haze, we can make out trailer trucks inching forward carrying M-1 tanks. Later, we see a string of baby-blue school buses, apparently pressed into service as infantry transports. Immediately to our right is a convoy of tracked armored vehicles headed toward the border, where dug-in Iraqi troops wait.

The Marines here, their skin baked to a leathery brown, say their job is to go in with tanks and provide cover for combat engineers trying to blast through the Iraqi line. It's one of the most dangerous jobs, but you wouldn't know it talking to these guys. "If we get the air support, we can do it at our leisure," shrugs Staff Sergeant James Wood of Orlando. "The quicker we get it done, the quicker we go home."

Back on the road, we drive on toward a village. But just outside, we hit a checkpoint that even Mohammed can't talk us through. We head back the way we came, climbing a rise that reveals an incredible vista.

It seems that all the military hardware rumbling in from various points in the desert has converged into one mammoth convoy. It's an epic scene worthy of a 70mm motion-picture screen. Chewing through the sand on our left is a long train of armored personnel carriers. To the right, a stream of Blackhawk helicopters, thwopping just 30 feet off the ground. Farther overhead, a swarm of Apache helicopter gunships. An M-1 tank stands guard on a hilltop nearby. And straight ahead, strung far as the eye can see, hundreds of supply trucks are led by a line of brown jeeps emblazoned with huge red crosses on a circle of white.

So far, the TV war has been a series of video-arcade bombing runs and scenes of havoc wreaked by Saddam's Scuds. But those red crosses are an ominous reminder that once the hell of ground battle begins, America's high-tech war promises to get a lot bloodier.

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