Mixed feelings as war nears

PEERING into the abyss of war, troops encamped just 45km from the Iraqi border feel apprehension, relief and fear.



At Camp Eagle, northern Kuwait.

PEERING into the abyss of war, troops encamped just 45km from the Iraqi border feel apprehension, relief and fear.

Apprehension that the five-week wait and frenetic training will stand the test of conflict.

Relief that the order to move forward will bring to an end the long days of waiting in draining temperatures where everything is covered in a thin veil of sand.

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Fear because across border lies an arsenal of biological and chemical weapons and ninety different types of landmines. Fear because we are all human.

I have never stood so close to the threshold of war.

If only the politicians could sense the shift from cheerful camaraderie of the last few days as the squaddies eat the unchanging "scoff" into bonds whose mettle will soon be tested in the teeth of the coming battle and under the heat of fire.

Courage like no other, it inspires bafflement and admiration in equal measure.

Yesterday, two Iraqi Scud missiles laden with nerve gas exploded at a nearby camp. Some 26,000 British personnel – including war correspondents like me – donned our respirators within the requisite nine seconds.

Thankfully, it was only an exercise but brought home the true nature of the coming conflict`.

With temperatures nudging 33C I practised drinking water through the mask and prayed it would never come to this for real.

Being 'slimed' is the worst case scenario and mustard gas, we have been told, is an excellent weapon to use at this time of year. Saddam, according to UN inspectors, has plenty of the stuff.

Yesterday the AAC's chaplain intoned the unit's official prayer during a service as dust whistled round our feet.

"Almighty God, who maketh the clouds thy chariots and who walketh upon the wings of the wind; have mercy upon all who serve in the Army Air Corps."

The enemy too was not forgotten in the prayers.

But this side of "the breach" over the next few days we can only hope that the padre will become no busier.

Yesterday a company of men from 1 Bn, Royal Irish Rangers were determined not to let St Patrick's Day pass without a party even though it was a day early.

The sound of pipes, drums, bugles and flutes playing Killaloo struck out across Camp Eagle at 6am local time - a novel reveille for the other members of 16 Air Assault Brigade based close to the Iraqi border.

In a bizarre spectacle, the Rangers, who are attached to 1 Bn, Royal Irish

One of the brigade's padres, Father Mark O'Keeffewas today due to officiate at the St Patrick's Day service for the Irish Guards, of 7th Armoured Brigade, at an adjoining camp.

Father Mark has acquired the appropriate St Patrick's Day nickname of Snakeman, on account of his disconcerting ability to summon up sand vipers wherever he walks.

Yesterday he faced his busiest day of the week here.

As chaplain to the 3 AAC battlegroup, Father Mark, 35, conducted a field service for his parishioners.

These helicopter troops listened in respectful silence as Father Mark spoke movingly of the headstone of a soldier's grave in Northern Ireland.

"To the world he was a soldier, to us he was the world."

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