Watchful wait at border DMZ

Soldiers of the United Nations observers mission check the credentials of journalists before allowing them to enter the demilitarized zone that separates Iraq from Kuwait. It was established after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.
Soldiers of the United Nations observers mission check the credentials of journalists before allowing them to enter the demilitarized zone that separates Iraq from Kuwait. It was established after the 1991 Persian Gulf war. (Sun photo by John Makely)
ABDALI, Kuwait - Perched atop United Nations observation post N-9 at the Iraq-Kuwait border, Russian army Maj. Alex Konkin overlooks a wide, bleak and increasingly uneasy landscape.

To the north, across the chalk-colored desert, he can see one of Iraq's ramshackle border posts, the poor farming town of Safwan and plumes of thick black smoke rising from natural gas fires in Iraq's oilfields.

To the south lies Kuwait, which at first glance doesn't look much different. Endless desert. More oil wells. But with the help of binoculars, a huddle of tents, trucks and soldiers is visible. So is an American flag - evidence of the 100,000 U.S. troops crowded in the Kuwaiti desert, preparing for an attack on Iraq.

In between is the 9-mile-wide U.N. demilitarized zone that has separated Kuwait and Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

If President Bush orders an invasion of Iraq, thousands of U.S. troops would start the battle here, punching through this fortified barrier of electrified razor wire, a 10-foot-high sand berm, and a 16-foot-deep, 16-foot-wide trench before meeting the Iraqi border patrol. From there, it's a 325-mile drive north to Baghdad.

Now a red sign just outside the DMZ warns, "U.S. Troops Do Not Enter," although the warning doesn't always keep U.S. soldiers away. "Sometimes U.S. soldiers get lost. Two officers came looking for some soldiers the other day," reports Konkin, a U.N. observer.

Konkin and the other 1,100 members of the U.N. observation mission don't plan on stopping them. Already, the mission is on heightened alert, distributing gas masks and chemical suits to observers and practicing an evacuation plan.

"Everybody has his rucksack ready in case he have to jump from Phase 2" - a high level of alert - "to Phase 5, which would mean withdrawal of the mission to safe havens," says Austrian army Maj. Sandor Glavics, a spokesman for the U.N. Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission.

But on a recent afternoon all was quiet in the DMZ.

Observation post N-9 had little to report other than the normal aircraft violations. Every night, U.S. and allied jets fly over the border to enforce the Iraqi no-fly zones. In the morning, the Iraqi government files complaints with the U.N. observation mission, demanding that the military aircraft be cited for crossing into the zone.

The complaints, however, are academic.

The United Nations says it is not equipped with radar to monitor or definitively identify the aircraft, so nothing comes of the violation.

The 200 observers spend their days and nights making dozens of trips, by four-by-four, by boat and by helicopter to monitor the DMZ - which runs 125 miles from the Saudi Arabian border in the south to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr in the northeast and then on 25 miles into the Khawr Abh Allah waterway leading into the gulf.

After the gulf war, unarmed observers patrolled the zone. But in 1993, after several Iraqi intrusions into the Kuwaiti side of the DMZ, the U.N. Security Council expanded the mission's role to include force if necessary. A 775-member Bangladeshi infantry battalion now keeps the peace on either side.

A few incidents

So far, they have been successful. A few incidents have been considered significant, according to the latest mission report to the U.N. secretary-general.

In November 2001, a 57mm anti-aircraft round was fired from Iraq and landed and exploded in Kuwait.

In February 2002, an Iraqi camel herder was allegedly abducted, possibly shot, and taken to Kuwait by Kuwaiti police. Later the camel herder returned to Iraqi.

The border is officially closed with no commercial traffic or travel from one side to the other. But from time to time there are exceptions. Once a month the International Red Cross delivers mail between Iraqi and Kuwaiti relatives who have been separated for the past 12 years.

In October, the United Nations arranged a handover of Kuwaiti national archives that were taken by Baghdad during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

Hundreds of Western journalists and dignitaries have visited the zone in recent months for the opportunity to peek across the border.

Taking advantage of this lonely desert outpost's new prominence, more than 50 Western activists gathered last month at the DMZ to protest any U.S.-led war on Iraq. The American, British, French, Australian and other Westerners gathered on the Iraqi side, held up placards that read "No War" and demanded the United Nations do something to prevent a war. U.N. observers asked them to leave.

The DMZ is about a 90-minute drive north of Kuwait City. You take Highway 80, past the industrial center of the capital, into the desert where camels plod along the side of the road.

Highway of Death

During the Persian Gulf war, this road became known as the "Highway of Death," where U.S.-led coalition forces destroyed hundreds of fleeing Iraqi troops, tanks and trucks, leaving the road a graveyard of Iraqi bodies and military hardware.

Today, all the wreckage has been cleaned up. It is a beautifully paved four-lane road, busy once again with military traffic preparing for war. Humvees and troop carriers shuttle U.S. and British forces up to their lonely desert bases. Helicopters fly low overhead. About 30 minutes north of Kuwait City, a highway sign announcing a turnoff for Mutla'a Ranch includes another message: "God Bless U.S. Troops."

Much of the U.S. military buildup is within earshot of the Iraqis living within the DMZ in Umm Qasr and the farming town of Safwan. They will be some of the first Iraqis to see U.S. troops if there is an invasion.

U.N. observers say no one appears to be fleeing, although some border residents are digging wells, afraid their water service will be destroyed if there is a war.

The drive inside the DMZ from U.N. headquarters at Umm Qasr to the border post at Abdali, a distance of about 10 miles, is a study in contrasts between the fortunes of Iraq and Kuwait after the gulf war.

On one side of the sand berm separating the countries, the Kuwait oilfields use modern technology. The Kuwaiti border police are housed in tidy brick offices with a fleet of four-by-fours parked outside. The land mines left over from the war have been cleared.

On the other side, the Iraqi border posts are shabby structures or, in some cases, just a tent. The oilfields belch out huge smoke clouds, polluting the air. Business at the Umm Qasr port is down 50 percent since the war, when the United Nations slapped economic sanctions on Iraq. Huge cargo ships navigate the port cautiously because the Iraqis no longer dredge the shipping channel.

The Iraqi side of the DMZ is still heavily mined. About two or three times per month, Iraqis are injured by a land mine or unexploded bomb, U.N. observers say.

Just beyond the sand berm in Umm Qasr, there is a collection of tiny brick houses, where tatty clothes were hung to dry. Iraqi residents often beg for food and money or medical help, U.N. observers say.

"It's pathetic," says Daljeet Bagga, information office for the observer mission. "The conditions are quite depressing. In many places there is no running water."

But the Iraqi authorities on the other side don't reveal much about their situation, what they think about the government or the prospects for war.

"They have an order not to talk," says Gravics. "Maybe we'll exchange some cigarettes or water. Nothing more."

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