KUWAIT CITY - Artillery fire echoed through the Iraqi border region last night, and Iran's state television showed video of explosions from airstrikes in and around the Iraqi port of Basra, as the United States and Great Britain made final preparations to wage a war aimed at toppling Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad.
After President Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Hussein, U.S. Army and Marine divisions rolled toward the Iraqi frontier yesterday. They formed a broad arc of thousands of vehicles, shoulder to shoulder in a sprawling phalanx facing north and visible to journalists scouting the area.
Across 5,000 square miles of Kuwaiti desert, a waning March moon illuminated an army of 130,000 American and British soldiers arrayed with a host of M1A1 Abrams tanks, armored vehicles of every description, ubiquitous Humvees and humble troop transports, many of them short of equipment spares and tires as quartermasters scrambled to catch up.
In the front of the formations, engineering battalions wheeled their bulldozers and heavy equipment into position to breach the ditches and earthen berms that lay between the army and the Iraqi desert.
The sky over northern Kuwait was so thick with assault and transport helicopters that meteorologists trying to track an advancing sandstorm were forbidden to launch their weather balloons. Hundreds of helicopter pilots engaged in last-minute training exercises to master blind descents through the clouds of sand kicked up by their rotors.
Less visibly, military officials said, American Special Operations Forces deployed from their bases on secret missions into Iraq, signaling that the invasion was imminent.
In the Persian Gulf, the commander of American and British naval forces, Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, expressed concern that Iraq was preparing attacks on coalition warships.
On Monday night, Iraqi army troops dispatched a large number of fishing vessels from coastal ports and moorings and sent them into waters where aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines were standing by to launch aircraft and cruise missiles at targets in Iraq. Military intelligence monitoring also detected the preparation of missile launching sites that could be directed at naval targets, Kelly said.
Kelly said, "Our concern now" was that the Iraqi leaders "may be more inclined to act" against allied warships. Speaking aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, he added, "The game could begin at any time."
Elsewhere on land, there were signs of supply shortages and bottlenecks.
"I am not bringing my company into the desert without spare tires for every Humvee, because I know we are going to have flats," one exasperated Army major said. He worried himself through the day over the "breakdown issue" that he said was looming because of shortages of equipment needed to support the Army on its 300-mile trek to Baghdad.
At the 101st Airborne encampment, armed guards were stationed to prevent pilfering from trucks loaded with drinking-water supplies. Hundreds of soldiers were lining up at Army V Corps headquarters trying to get last-minute anthrax and smallpox vaccinations.
Much of the artillery bursts that thundered through the region yesterday rose from the Udairi range about 15 miles south of the Iraqi border, where the 101st Airborne was firing live rounds to calibrate 105-millimeter howitzers. But observers on the border reported that artillery fire could also be heard across the border.
After sundown, British and American marines assigned to split off from the main army to take Basra in the opening days of the campaign were paying special attention to reports from that city.
An Iranian television correspondent, standing on the Iranian side of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway that forms Basra's eastern boundary, said he could hear aircraft over the city as well as the sound of air raid sirens and explosions.
Aboard the carrier Lincoln yesterday, the mood had shifted perceptibly as sailors and airmen were instructed to make final preparations for bombing missions. Expressions were stern and conversations more serious.
"All the machismo, all the talk about what the future will bring, well, reality is here," said Capt. Scott Swift, deputy commander of the carrier's air wing.