DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- As a prelude to an all-out ground offensive, U.S. forces are inundating the nearest Iraqi defensive positions with bombs, rockets and some of the heaviest artillery in the American arsenal.
"We're really having a field day taking out his tanks and some of his artillery," a senior U.S. military official said yesterday.
According to the military and to reporters traveling with ground combat units, efforts toward "battlefield preparation" have advanced significantly in the last few days. Signs pointing to an escalating ground war are everywhere.
One of the military's immediate goals is to soften Iraqi resistance across the Saudi border, both in Iraq and Kuwait, and on the southern Kuwait coastline, where a Marine amphibious landing could occur.
Over the weekend routine U.S. border patrols and ground reconnaissance missions became more aggressive and attacked the enemy with an array of tanks, armored fighting vehicles and Apache attack helicopters.
The allies also started to use fuel air explosives discharged from C-130 aircraft in an attempt to clear minefields.
Meanwhile, infantrymen began receiving night-vision laser sights on their M-16 rifles, and shipments began arriving at the front of new Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers designed for close-range attacks of bunkers and vehicles.
Across the northern Saudi desert near the border, U.S. soldiers have reported getting their first eyewitness look at bombs exploding on forward Iraqi positions. Marines positioned near the Persian Gulf coast also say they have seen the heaviest combined air and ground bombardment so far on Iraqi targets just across the Kuwaiti line.
Explosions have been heard about 20 seconds after flashes of light, and the concussions have been strong enough to rattle soldiers' tents.
"Now we're talking," Army Spc. Robert Vigil of Cohutta, Ga., exclaimed while watching one such predawn spectacle. "Good morning, Iraq!"
For its part, the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) fired more than a thousand rockets and 8-inch artillery shells at Iraqi artillery emplacements on Saturday, marking what one witness called the heaviest ground bombardment of Iraqi territory ever.
The division's artillery units used one of the Army's newest weapons, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, which fired one round every 4.2 seconds until each launcher emptied a complement of 12 rockets.
With more destructive power than any existing artillery cannon, the MLRS provided saturation coverage on designated target areas. Each rocket was capable of dropping 644 smaller bombs on the target, Army officials said.
Lt. Col. Scott Lingamfelter, executive officer of division artillery, said the rockets should surprise Iraqi troops and devastate their prized artillery defenses.
"We want them to be there dealing cards and eating out of cans and all the sudden it's on them," he said. "We want the shock effect. It is time they woke up and smelled the coffee."
A senior military official said Iraqi artillery batteries were high-priority targets at this stage because Iraq has positioned them to complement its forward line of troops, minefields, anti-tank trenches and razor wire.
The Iraqis are also expected to unleash Soviet-made attack dTC helicopters to cover the minefields and to attack approaching U.S. and allied forces, said officers of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), who have been making final preparations to fight this threat.
So far, most of the Iraqi army's 160 armed helicopters have been inactive. "The Iraqis have a limited supply of helicopters, so they won't be throwing them into the meat grinder," said 2nd Lt. Daniel Brewster, 23, of Frederick.