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Zoom in: Tanks roll with telephotos

Kuwait, March 21: The rings of smoke are white and Abdulla al-Khalidi and his cousin see them despite the afternoon glare in the Arabian desert because the skies beyond are grey.

Three Patriots have just brought down an Iraqi surface-to-surface missile — was it a Scud' Was it an Al-Samoud' — some 32 km north of Kuwait City near Jahra. Jahra is an urban settlement of 200,000. More important, militarily, it’s just about 15 km from Camp Doha, headquarters of the US Land Forces Command here, the ARCENT.

This is still behind the lines of the guns-and-cameras invasion by US and British Marines, commandos and mechanised units advancing in at least two, possibly three different lines into Iraq. Baghdad stares down the barrels of tanks and the telephoto lenses of network cameras at the same time.

Here, in Kuwait, like the greyness of the skies, we are in the fog of war. Bits and pieces of information trickle in, the big picture is far from complete.

This much is certain: Iraqi forces are collapsing towards Baghdad — by design or simply capitulating. Coalition land forces have cut across into Iraq from north Kuwait — towards Umm Qasra and Basra — and from the south, through Safwan towards Baghdad.

In a first for any modern war, the frontal units of the land assault are carrying with them select journalists from television networks who are beaming images live, real-time, images that can be captured by shaky, mostly hand-held cameras.

At the office of the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait City, they will say that current and future operations are beyond the scope of briefings. There are definite signs that the US military’s 101st Airborne Division is at the ready.

In recent wars waged by the US, the division has been the front paw of many assaults. A possible scenario in which they can be used is a paradrop to secure strategic targets. Oilfields' Maybe. Baghdad' Can be. From there they will fan out, cut back through military firewalls and meet other land components in Iraq, possibly the columns advancing from the south.

The incursions or advances in southern Iraq are still on ground covered by the southern no-fly zone where successive air raids over the past decade had degraded Iraqi air defences. Militarily, it cannot yet be called a “thrust” because it is not yet known how big these columns are, though a CNN ‘embed’ (journalist attached to a unit) described one as a “rolling wall of steel and armour”.

The route taken through southern Iraq is plainly through open desert. The roads, the beaten tracks, can be assumed to be mined so as to reduce an advance to a crawl even if it cannot be beaten back.

CNN and Fox News beaming live images showed American Bradley fighting machines and MA1 Abrams tanks. The Abrams is estimated to be capable of speeds of around 50 kmph. According to the networks, the armoured units have been rolling for nearly 30 hours now with stops for refuelling. They also advance in broad daylight indicating there is little or almost no opposition on their route yet.

It is likely that in ground not covered by the no-fly zones, opposition will be evident.

The roll of the mechanised units and the readiness of the 101st Airborne suggest that the components would have to “shake hands”.

Conventionally, a paradrop in this kind of a scenario can be preceded by wave after wave of aerial bombardment. If the Pentagon is indeed planning a “shock and awe” campaign, this is where the plan can go into execution.

(Also inexplicable is the fact that live television images out of Baghdad show the lights on in the Iraqi capital during raids. Either a blackout has not been declared or is not being enforced.)

As this despatch is being written, an air raid siren begins wailing here in Kuwait. People rush to shelters in basements. There are those who have been issued gas masks by the authorities. There are others who have bought the gas masks from $50 to 100 apiece. A Kuwaiti information official says this is the 19th siren since the “light attack” on Baghdad last morning.

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