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Troops Take Iraq Bid With More Than a Grain of Salt : Front lines: They'll believe Hussein when POWs are released and the enemy starts moving north.

February 16, 1991|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — American troops reacted with a shrug and expressions of skepticism Friday to news that Iraq might pull out of Kuwait.

"Saddam Hussein's asking for too many conditions and he ain't going to get them," said 19-year-old Pfc. Mike Adams.

Even as Baghdad residents celebrated what they thought might be the end of the war, the Americans didn't throw as much as a high-five or share an embrace. They would believe Hussein's intent to withdraw, they said, when the allied POWs were released and Iraqi troops started moving north.

There is nothing they want more dearly; yet until it happens, no one was ready to start a short-timer's countdown to home.

"In my heart I would be overjoyed, because that means Marines won't die in combat," one Leatherneck on the front lines, Maj. Peter Peterson, told pool correspondents. "But professionally, let's give him 24 hours and see if anybody moves north."

At a major allied air base in the Eastern Province, several dozen GIs recently arrived in Saudi Arabia waited in a hangar the size of a basketball court for flights to Al Dhafra and Masirah and Thumrail, towns where they would join units that are preparing for the assault on Kuwait.

A TV in the corner was broadcasting reaction to the announcement by Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council, but only four or five GIs watched. Others sat on their cots, playing cards, or dozed against the duffel bags, waiting for their flights to be called.

"This is the first time in 34 years in the Army that I've seen soldiers who didn't really get excited when there was a possibility of going home," said Command Sgt. Maj. Elmer Sveda. "Happy, yes, they're happy. But excited, no. This guy Saddam Hussein has done so much wrong that no one trusts him any more.

"A lot of my men, they're so young, so innocent, they don't know what war's really about. They want to go. But I know for a fact how quick that feeling disappears when the shooting starts. I guess that's why they keep old soldiers like me around--to let the kids know war hurts you physically and mentally for life."

Sveda's words disappeared in the thunder of Saudi F-15s and Tornadoes roaring off toward Kuwait and Iraq, Sidewinder missiles protruding from beneath their fuselages. It was business as usual, day No. 30 of a war that Vice President Dan Quayle had promised U.S. troops last New Year's Eve would be "quick, massive and decisive."

Quayle's pledge was being fulfilled, though more slowly than many had hoped, and most American troops seemed uncomfortable with the thought of a half-completed mission while the smell of victory hung in the air, even though that victory would cost them casualties.

"Iraq's offer is a positive sign that the bombing has affected Saddam Hussein," said Staff Sgt. Ray Schoonover. "He wants to make a deal. But I don't think that attaching any kind of conditions is going to satisfy the President. It know it won't satisfy me."

"Hey, I'd love to go home, but I want to go home for the right reasons," said Maj. Keven Kiely. "Right now, Saddam Hussein's still there, with at least part of his military machine intact. That's like having a snake in your back yard. If we packed up right now, I'd be afraid someone would have to come back and do this job all over again some day."

"The offer sounds too good to be true," Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan Staples told a pool correspondent. "We've been here too long. But unless we drive him out, he'll be right back in two or three years. Even if he does pull out, I believe we'll go right in after him. At least I hope we do, 'cause I don't want to come back."

In the hangar where the soldiers waited, M-16 rifles resting against overstuffed rucksacks, huge greetings nailed to the wall spoke of American support that had been denied their fathers in Vietnam.

"We Pray For the Success of Your Mission and Your Safe Return Home," said a poster signed by hundreds of Hamilton, N.J., residents. And from the Sunset Congregational Preschool in Miami a 12-foot-long banner: "You're Someone Special."

The men and women there chatted in small group.

"You had a hero who got too big for his britches, and we had to step in and stomp him," said Specialist Paul Campbell. "It's just something we had to do, but I never looked on this as a glorious war."

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