CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait (AP) – Hours before opening the ground war, U.S. troops got their first real scare today when Iraqi missiles streaked across the border into Kuwait, forcing Americans in the desert to climb into protective suits and put on gas masks.

Paul Wong
AP Photo
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, center, enters with Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, on right background, a press briefing at the Pentagon Thursday, March 20, 2003, in Washington.

“Gas, gas, gas!” came a muffled cry, barely audible inside an armored vehicle of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit at one camp.

The Marines inside slapped on masks and waited, some sipping water through tubes connecting their masks to their canteens. An “all clear” came, but a half-hour later another “gas, gas, gas” warning rang across the camp.

Later in the day, as the sun set, the Marines could hear the sustained sounds of bombs or artillery shells exploding across the border in southern Iraq. The detonations stopped after 30 minutes.

Elsewhere in the Kuwaiti desert, an Associated Press reporter heard powerful explosions near Highway 8, the road that runs from Kuwait City to the Iraqi port of Basra.

Soon after, the howitzers and rocket launchers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division began bombarding targets in southern Iraq. More than 100 shells were fired in one five-minute barrage, illuminating the big guns against the night sky. There was no return fire from Iraqi troops.

The American military said it used Patriot missiles to shoot down at least one Iraqi missile. No injuries were reported from any of the missiles, and there was no immediate evidence they carried chemical or biological warheads.

The Iraqi attack came several hours after the United States launched precision-guided bombs and more than 40 Tomahawk missiles in strikes it said were aimed at Saddam Hussein and his top leadership.

U.S. Army troops at Camp New Jersey put on their chemical and biological protective gear in response to an alert caused by one of the missiles, but were given the all-clear a few minutes later.

Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force near the Iraqi border were on the highest alert level and were ordered into bunkers three times during the morning.

The Marines dropped food trays and ran out of showers to hastily don gas masks and protective gear. Inside one bunker, Marines traded jokes. “Did anybody take out insurance?” cracked one, hidden by his mask.

At another position in the desert along the Iraqi border, the soldiers of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment were eating lunch when an Iraqi missile hit the desert. The locomotive-like roar of the missile flying through the air followed the sound of impact because of the distances involved.

Within a minute, a message came across the radio, reporting that a tactical ballistic missile had landed in the desert near U.S. troops. A few minutes later, all troops were ordered into protective clothing for chemical and biological warfare.

The men moved swiftly but calmly, systematically putting on their masks, then clothing. Once one soldier was done, he would make sure another soldier had his gear on properly.

The still desert heat raised anxieties, since gas or vapor from biological and chemical weapons lingers in little or no wind, causing more damage. In brisk wind, the gas or vapor disperses quickly.

The men were quiet, since shouting to be heard from inside a gas mask takes extra breath. They also were listening for more incoming missiles.

About 20 minutes later, the radio crackled, “All clear.”

After removing his mask, the company commander, Capt. Chris Carter of Watkinsville, Ga., said: “Saddam is a fool.”

“I think it’s an obvious attempt by Saddam Hussein to demoralize the army and the American public,” Carter said. “An attempt that has been a miserable failure. He’s probably got the guys more ready to fight than ever.”

The men of the unit returned to cleaning their weapons and reading books, waiting for their part of the war to begin with a new awareness of the hazards ahead.

“I know what I’ll be using as a pillow tonight,” Staff Sgt. Bryce Ivings of Sarasota, Fla., said of his protective suit.

After weeks on standby, U.S. troops appeared to welcome news that war was under way and were eager for orders to cross into Iraq.

“It’s a relief we can finally go,” said Spc. Robert McDougal, 21, of Paris, Texas, as the 101st Airborne Division broke camp. “Standing by is the hardest thing to do. It is time to put our training to the test.”

Hundreds of vehicles, including bulldozers, Humvees and trucks full of equipment and supplies, lined up in Camp New Jersey. The dust storm that had buffeted the troops Wednesday eased, giving way to a relatively cool morning in the low 80s with a few clouds.

In the afternoon, the division’s 3rd Brigade roared out of camp in a column of hundreds of vehicles that blew clouds of dust into the air. Five-ton trucks were crammed with infantrymen who waved goodbye to their commander, shouting “air assault!”

Soldiers were up at dawn, cleaning tents and stuffing items into duffel bags. Some tried to slip out to the dining facility for one last hot meal before leaving.

Sgt. Brian McGough, 27, Philadelphia, sat by his automatic grenade launcher as he loaded rucksacks into storage containers.

“No one ever prays for war, but if it comes to that we are trained to do it,” he said.

Members of the 709th Military Police Battalion learned about the strikes on Baghdad from a reporter.

“Good. At least we know what we will be doing in the next three days,” said Lt. Col. Richard Vanderlinden, the battalion commander. He said his MPs would follow on the heels of advancing U.S. forces, dealing with prisoners of war and displaced Iraqi civilians.

Some Iraqi soldiers have surrendered already. An officer with the 3rd Infantry Division, briefing reporters on condition on anonymity, said entire Iraqi divisions were expected to surrender swiftly.

Aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf, ordnance crews in protective headgear and red life vests wheeled 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound bombs along the flight deck today yellow stripes on their nose to indicate they were live munitions.

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