Northern Kuwait, March 19 (Reuters): A fierce sandstorm in parts of the Kuwaiti desert briefly cut visibility to a few metres today, but a US commander said the dust would not disrupt plans for an imminent invasion of Iraq.
In other parts of the assembly zones for tens of thousands of US and British military personnel, visibility was about 200 metres. Five hundred kilometres to the northwest, Baghdad was also shrouded in dust.
“It’s not going to have any impact, other than making everybody dirty and uncomfortable,” US Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the Third Infantry Division in northern Kuwait, said of the storm.
Visibility improved to a few tens of metres for Blount’s troops, in a long convoy of vehicles, by early afternoon from only a few earlier as the winds eased. The sun was still invisible behind by the swirling dust, but the winds were not as severe as a dust storm a week ago. By cutting visibility and driving grit into soldiers’ eyes and high-tech equipment, a sandstorm could delay a ground assault.
On the other hand, it has benefits for attackers, blinding defenders and cooling the desert heat for troops moving forward in stifling chemical protection suits. At night, dust would dim the moon, which is almost full, and so help attackers hide.
The sandstorm — known as a “shamal” in Arabic — blew up as the clocked ticked towards a Thursday 0115 GMT US deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to leave the country or face invasion.
Fresh sandstorms over Baghdad would limit the ability of pilots to bomb accurately — but it would have little effect on the satellite-guided missiles and bombs that now make up the bulk of the US arsenal.
Blount said that he was continuing with preparations for war. “The division is in the process of repositioning forces closer to the border for future offensive operations if required,” he said.
In Baghdad and Kuwait, temperatures were cooler than the spring heat of recent days, with winds of up to 60 kmph whipping up the desert sand.
Further south, Kuwait airport’s website forecast dusty weather for the rest of the day with winds of up 50 kmph blowing into Kuwait from the northwest — across the Saudi/Iraqi desert.
It predicted that winds would drop to 15-35 kmph until Sunday, with maximum temperatures of 27 degrees Celsius and a chance of cloud and even rain at the weekend. US and British ground forces are expected to push into Iraq during or after an intense aerial bombardment. At least some frontline units were still at assembly areas some way from the frontier and had yet to move forward to final assault positions.
Last night, huge convoys laden with men and equipment were making their ways towards the frontier.
One column contained dozens of vehicles packed with hundreds of infantrymen. Most stared ahead, expressionless, as their slow convoy made its way north.
Behind them followed dozens of military ambulances, emblazoned with a red cross.