Iraq Threats Prompt Vigilance
Sniper attack against coalition forces in Gulf renews concern over Iraqi-backed terrorism
DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA
AS United States and other coalition troops mass along the Saudi border, waiting for the offensive and watching for Iraqi surprise attacks, they are having to keep a close eye on their rear as well. Iraq has threatened to hit US interests throughout the world in retaliation for the bombing of targets in Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
The sniping incident on Feb. 3 in the Saudi Arabian city of Jiddah, in which two US soldiers were wounded, shows that military personnel behind the lines are in some ways more vulnerable than their comrades at the front.
The soldiers were traveling in a bus when an unknown rifleman opened fire on them. They were hurt by flying glass.
Saudi Arabia said yesterday that it arrested the gunmen responsible. After the attack, Saudi authorities warned that people convicted of trying to undermine state security could be executed and offered a cash reward to anyone providing important information.
Saudis identified the gunmen only as ``residents,'' a term usually used to refer to foreigners working in the oil-rich kingdom.
The prospect of sudden guerrilla attacks on coalition troops both on and off the battlefield has prompted commanders to step up security around their men all over Saudi Arabia. Plagued by memories of the truck bomb that blew up the US Marine barracks in Beirut, US officials are particularly wary.
At the International Hotel in Dhahran, operations base for the foreign press and for the US military information office, Saudi and US soldiers in flak jackets guard doors and search all visitors' bags. The entrance to the hotel is blocked by heavy concrete obstacles to deter suicide bombers.
A mile away on the highway, access to the hotel and to the neighboring Saudi air base is strictly controlled at a roadblock manned by soldiers armed with heavy machine guns.
``We are preparing for the possibility of terrorist attacks on our troops,'' US Marine Gen. Robert Johnston said in Riyadh Monday night.
``It is a high priority for us because we do present vulnerable targets,'' he added. ``The individual serviceman is never entirely safe.''
Fears of a sneak attack by guerrillas - whether taking orders from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein or simply acting out of sympathy for his cause - extends to the front lines of coalition troops as well.
Soldiers of the US VII Corps say they are afraid of the possibility that Iraqi commandos or Arab guerrillas might find their way into their camp.
``Our biggest worry is someone driving a Toyota truck with a mortar on the back,'' says Maj. Dave Cook.
Buses and trucks used to bring men and material to the camp are often driven by Saudis or other civilians, the soldiers complain. ``I would feel a lot safer if they were GIs behind the steering wheel,'' said Sgt. Paul Holt.
Security has been tightened along the front, but is hard to enforce sometimes in the confusion of troop movements, and especially when men from different armies are constantly on the move near to each other.
A major in the Saudi border patrol was detained by a US lieutenant for several hours a week ago in an embarrassing incident which illustrated how highly US troops are on the alert.
Rules requiring sentries to arrest any ``foreign national'' driving through their area were relaxed after the incident to include only foreigners behaving in ``a suspicious manner.''
But every morning for an hour before dawn, US Army units stand guard at the perimeters of their camps, and passwords change daily to add to security.
The recent theft of about 50 US military vehicles from a forward base, revealed here at the weekend, has also fueled fears they could be used by Iraqi forces or their sympathizers to gain access to US facilities.
General Johnston dismissed such concerns, saying the army had found 10 of the vehicles and that he suspected the Marines had ``borrowed'' the others for their own purposes. ``They are not in enemy hands, I can assure you,'' he said.
A senior US military officer also played down the sniper attack in Jiddah, saying he ``wouldn't connect that one incident with any meaningful terrorist plan. It was not well executed - doesn't have the trappings of a professional'' attack.
``I think it was just someone who has some anti-American sentiments,'' the officer added.
But as the war goes on, and those anti-American sentiments grow throughout the Arab and Muslim world, even in tightly controlled Saudi Arabia, coalition forces will have to be on their guard against unconventional attack from all sides.