Baghdad Diary: Getting Ready For War?

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GAS LINES: Iraqis in Basrah stockpile fuel in anticipation of war

We're now in the final phase of the Phony War. The Iraqi military has begun highly visible preparations to shore up defenses along the vital Basra-Baghdad highway. The Army has started to move troops and materials into defensive positions along the road, which was heavily bombed by U.S.-led forces during the Gulf War while the Iraqis were withdrawing their troops from Kuwait. In the event of a new war, U.S. and British forces will need to seize and hold this crucial artery, which links the Iraqi heartland to the country's only significant port.

Driving up the highway Saturday afternoon (Iraq time), I saw clear signs of preparations in the scores of small mud-and-brick forts that line the strategically important road. Officials were not immediately available for comment, and there had been no announcement of any specific military build-up. But when I passed this way en route to Basra only three days ago, most of the forts were empty or thinly manned. Now they were abuzz with activity.

Many were receiving fresh coats of whitewash and were flying new, brightly colored regimental flags. Officers were supervising repairs to some forts, and earth-moving equipment were being used to build trenches and protective mounds of soil. A few forts were also being supplied with water and other provisions. Small detachments of soldiers were being transported in both directions of the highway, on pickup trucks; a few armored personnel carriers and mobile artillery pieces were also on the move.

One of the most poignant sights I've seen here was a lone soldier — he could not have been more than 18 years old; his mandatory Iraqi moustache was barely visible — sitting in the back of a pickup truck, waving with a child's sense of glee at every passing village. When the fighting starts, that young man will need to grow up very fast.

Although well short of a full-scale mobilization, these were the first visible signs of military preparations on the highway, and lend a modicum of credibility to the official rhetoric about a readiness to resist an invasion. (With access to the north of the country denied to journalists, it was not possible to ascertain whether similar defenses were being set up along other important highways.)

How much resistance can they offer? The forts are tiny, most of them no more than 50 feet square. Their mud walls are topped with rows of whitewashed bricks; in the four corners are small brick kiosks, some of which serve as machine-gun stations. Many of the forts also include small brick bunkers. Painted on the outer walls of each fort are exhortations of bravery and sacrifice by Saddam Hussein.

You don't have to be a civil engineer to see that the forts, many of which are clustered around small settlements between Basra and the town of Arama, are crude constructions. They don't look particularly durable, and seem unprotected from aerial attack. Nonetheless, they will likely play an important role in any land war. In a flat, barren landscape, they offer the only high ground.