| A convoy of US tanks from the 3rd Infantry Division rolls under the full moon through the desert in northern Kuwait. (AFP)
Baghdad, March 19 (Reuters): A US-led invasion force moved units into position today for a war to oust President Saddam Hussein that could start in hours.
The deadline set by President George W. Bush for Saddam and his family to leave the country expires at 4 am Iraqi time (6.30 am IST). The Iraqi President has shown no sign of complying, despite a last-minute asylum offer from Bahrain.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer refused to say whether military action could commence before the deadline expires. Asked what would happen at the hour the deadline passes, Fleischer said: “You shall see.”
Bush’s aides said in Washington that the President would order military action depending on several factors, including the weather in Kuwait and over Iraq, which the military is weighing.
At staging posts in the Kuwaiti desert, US forces donned chemical weapons protection suits. In a hint of what may lie ahead, a fierce sandstorm cut visibility to just a few metres in places.
On aircraft carriers and at land bases in the Gulf, pilots prepared for what is expected to be one of the most ferocious aerial bombardments in history.
The top US naval commander in the Gulf said it was very likely an attack would be launched “within a couple of days”.
Kuwaiti security sources said US and British troops had moved into the demilitarised zone that straddles the Iraq-Kuwait border.
“Troops walked into the DMZ this morning at around 11 am (1.30 pm IST),” said a Kuwaiti security force source working in the Umm Qasr area in the east of the zone. “American convoys are still driving towards Umm Qasr.”
The Bush administration told Americans to prepare for a war that will cost lives and could last for an unknown time.
“On the brink of war with Iraq, Americans should be prepared for what we hope will be as precise and short a conflict as possible, but there are many unknowns. It could be a matter of some duration, we do not know,” Fleischer said.
“Americans have to be prepared for loss of life. Americans have to be prepared for the importance of disarming Saddam Hussein to protect the peace.”
British and US aircraft dropped almost two million leaflets over southeastern Iraq urging Iraqi soldiers not to use weapons of mass destruction or torch oil wells, and advising them to lay down their weapons rather than die for a lost cause.
In financial markets, stocks perked up as news of troop movements spurred hopes of a short war. Gold, a safe haven in troubled times, oil prices and the US dollar all rose. Bond prices fell.
The US and Britain have massed 280,000 troops in the region to kill or capture Saddam and overthrow his government. Prime Minister Tony Blair, putting Britain on a war footing, told parliament that Saddam had burned his bridges and would now be toppled.
In a move that fell short of Washington’s initial hopes, Turkey said it would allow US warplanes to use its airspace, but not its airbases. Even at this late stage, this could help US forces open a second front in northern Iraq.
As Washington urged Iraq’s army to stand aside and offer no resistance, Vice-Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, gave his forces a pep talk.
“I think it very likely that within a couple of days jets are going to be going off the front of the USS Abraham Lincoln,” he told sailors aboard the aircraft carrier.
“If we go, the plans we have are unlike anything anyone has ever seen before,” Keating told reporters, adding these would be based on “remarkable speed, breathtaking speed, agility, precision and persistence”.
Iraq’s information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, said in Baghdad an invasion of Iraq would fail. “What they are facing is definite death,” he said. Iraqi legislators vowed to die for Saddam.
Dressed in military uniform and with a pistol strapped to his belt, Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz met reporters in Baghdad to scotch rumours that he had defected or been shot trying to flee.
US officials say upwards of 3,000 satellite-guided bombs and cruise missiles will be unleashed from sea and air on targets vital to Saddam’s government in a “shock and awe” start to the war.
Ground forces are expected to move in during or after the aerial bombardment to secure Iraq’s oil fields. Saddam loyalists torched wells in Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War.