News briefly stirs hopes, hardens soldiers' resolve WAR IN THE GULF

DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- The thunderous sound of bombs exploding in the distance gave Marine Gunnery Sgt. Albert Tasker some reason to doubt that the war and the carnage would be ending soon.

The 35-year-old Glen Burnie man had literally jumped for joy when he first heard reports of an Iraqi offer to withdraw from Kuwait. "The best news I've had since I've been here," he exclaimed.


But as the day wore on, the news got worse, allied bombs kept falling and so did the hopes of hundreds of thousands of GIs who have been girding for a ferocious ground war that could start at a moment's notice.

If a "cruel hoax" had been played by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as President Bush put it yesterday, many of its victims were the men and women who, in coming weeks, may be fighting to stay alive.


The --ed hopes for peace gave way to anger and, for some soldiers, a stronger resolve to engage the enemy and kill him on the battlefield.

From their dusty command post near the Kuwaiti border, Sergeant Tasker and other men in the 2nd Marine Division have been preparing for the nasty, bloody job of breaching Iraqi minefields, anti-tank trenches and artillery emplacements.

They told reporters traveling with the unit that they were hoping they"didn't have to make the breach" of the formidable Iraqi defenses.

Overjoyed by the initial news from Baghdad, one squad posed for a group photograph, as if they were about to leave for home.

But Sergeant Tasker, among others, considered that the news might not be favorable in the end. "That would be the worst," he said before President Bush summarily rejected the Iraqi offer. "My head would be dragging in the sand."

From desert bunkers to aircraft hangars across Saudi Arabia, no one seemed to trust the Iraqi president. For some, that distrust constrained any impulse to exult openly over the initial report from Baghdad.

"I didn't believe it for a minute," a senior Army officer said about the offer. But, he confided, "for a while there, I was thinking of home."

"He came up in Khafji with his tank barrels turned around" as if to surrender, said Army Spc. 4 Michael Abrams of Fort Hood, Texas, referring to the ruse Iraqi troops used to attack a Saudi border town two weeks ago. "Anyone [who] did that will do it again."


Cpl. Robert Brewer of Dewey, Okla., a member of an anti-tank company in the 2nd Marine Division, heard news reports over a static-filled radio as his unit prepared to move into final position for a possible ground offensive into Kuwait.

"I'm ready to go home," he said. "My son's going to be 1 year old in March. We're so pissed off, we're ready to kill somebody."

"I think Saddam must be destroyed," said Sgt. Ernest Grafton of Norfolk, Va., a combat photographer in the same unit.

At a busy air base in eastern Saudi Arabia, where 1st Lt. Christopher Angellino of Baltimore was waiting for a flight to take him north, there was something positive about the day's events.

Lieutenant Angellino, 24, an Apache helicopter pilot whose likely mission in a ground war would be to attack Iraqi tanks, considered the Baghdad announcement an opening gambit in a political solution.

He said that the punishing round-the-clock bombardment of Iraqi forces had made Mr. Hussein desperate for a cease-fire.


"I think he's really hurting," he said. "This is opening doors right now. It's not the final answer, but it is definitely a start."

But Army Cpl. Jared Mullins of Daingerfield, Texas, who was headed to the front as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division, summed up the prevailing views of others this way:

"I don't trust the bastard. We're going in."