Front Lines: The Comforts Of Qatar

There are no highway signs directing you to Camp As Sayliyah, Central Command's desert headquarters in Qatar. Driving instructions are as follows: take the Western industrial road out of the capital, Doha, and just keep going across the flat, gravelly land for about a half an hour until you see a big checkpoint.

In this hazy terrain devoid of landmarks, it's actually possible to miss the 262-acre site. And that's just the way both the U.S. military and the Emir of Qatar like it. "We don't want to leave a large footprint," Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens, my guide around the base, explained.

The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, invited the U.S. military here in the mid-1990s. The oil- and natural-gas-rich country is a tiny peninsula that juts out off Saudi Arabia. On the map, it even looks precarious. Tensions with its giant neighbors in the region drove the royal government to befriend the United States in return for protection. Though it has only a small air force of its own, the emir spent $1 billion dollars on the Al Udeid Air Base (which sits on the outskirts of the other side of town from the camp) and invited the U.S. to accommodate F-15E Strike Eagles and other aircraft here. Some Arab states--and a few Qataris--have been critical of the move. From my hotel, I can hear what I think are the huge cargo planes taking off from the 15,000-foot runway, the longest in the Persian Gulf. The roar that ripples the calm is the only regular reminder that the U.S. military is near, and primed for war.

The U.S. ground troops here are treading as lightly as possible. The several thousand soldiers (they won't say exactly how many) based at Camp As Sayliyah are not allowed to go into Doha unless they have official business. When they do, they can't wear their fatigues and they have to respect the local customs of this Muslim country: the men wear pants and collared shirts and the women dress modestly, though they don't have to wear a headscarf. Occasionally they are allowed to make a run to one of the ubiquitous fast-food joints so they can have a quick fix of America (unless they want to sample the golden arches' new McArabia--Arab bread with grilled chicken).

At the camp, they're trying to re-create some of the comforts of home. There's a Subway sandwich shop and something called the Oasis Club with a 51-inch big-screen TV and a two-beer-a-night ration (no hard alcohol allowed). There's a gym and even an Olympic-size pool--part of the permanent facilities built some five years ago. Ever since the Pentagon decided to base the generals who will run any war against Iraq here, the camp has been getting troop and technology upgrades. When I visited Tuesday, the sounds of construction ricocheted everywhere. Some soldiers were building frames for the mattresses that stood stacked up in one air-conditioned warehouse. The neat rows of desert-tan warehouses are now serving as barracks. "It's not the Ritz, but it beats sleeping in the dirt," says Owens, explaining that the main complaint is that the hot water runs out by about 8 a.m.

There are other creature comforts: TVs are being installed for recreation lounges. Soldiers, some of whom have been here months already, keep their minds occupied by talk of March Madness, which may come before War Madness at the rate things are going. Time off means lounging at the pool, barbecuing or working out in the gym. But there are reminders that war is nigh. There are concrete bunkers reinforced with three layers of sandbags for anyone caught outside during an attack. In 1991, Saddam Hussein fired a couple of Scud missiles at Doha. The Al Samoud missiles, some of which Saddam is destroying now, can also reach Qatar. The military is taking no chances; every soldier has been issued a chem suit.

TV reporters are more worried about sun exposure than chemical exposure. They have to do their stand-ups outside at the base. The press center is about 70 percent ready by Owens's estimate. "We're getting down to the nitty gritty," he says. A shipment of three plasma screens just arrived, and they were being unpacked and mounted in the briefing room on Tuesday. They'll show battle-damage assessments more precisely than ever (at least the assessments they want to show reporters). Not only are the screens high tech but so are the bombs. They include precision-guided JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munition), which use GPS signals to guide them. Maybe the "smart bombs" will really be smart this gulf war.

For now, the spotless briefing room awaits Gen. Tommy Franks's return. "We might set all this up and do one briefing, or be here 24/7," Owens says wistfully. From the communications hub here, Franks will also hold videoconferences with Washington and his field commanders. Even though the general doesn't need to be here for the war to start, reporters are looking at his next trip as a sign that battle is beginning. In actuality, it has already begun--and so has the Pentagon's media machine. On Tuesday, coalition aircraft dropped 420,000 "informational leaflets" over cities in southern Iraq. One gave radio frequencies to tune into and the other was aimed at Iraqi troops. "Leave now and go home," the leaflet read. "Watch your children learn, grow and prosper."

The leaflets weren't the only propaganda in the region this week. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein claimed that the U.S. had bombed Iraqi civilians in the no-fly zone. The CENTCOM "Forward Newsdesk" at the camp called reporters here--including the upstart Arabic cable news channel Al-Jazeera, which is based in Doha--to insist that U.S. planes hit a military target, not a civilian one. The Pentagon may be trying to avoid footprints, but they hope to stomp out what they see as Saddam's disinformation.