The camp of the fabled French Foreign Legion is in one of the bleakest stretches of desert facing the Iraqi border - a flat, hard terrain with no dune or tree to interrupt the horizon.

Movement on the flinty surface releases great clouds of fine, reddish dust that billows into the air like some evil genie released from a bottle.There's not even an oasis swimming hole for recreation, but that doesn't weaken the spirit of the legionnaires.

"There will be plenty of time to swim when we reach the Tigris and Euphrates," said Lt. Col. Michel Germain, whose men are poised to advance to the mighty Iraqi rivers if necessary.

"We were trained to go anywhere, do anything in the worst conditions," said Germain. "We are made to go where we die because we are professionals."

Experience shows. When a mortar platoon packs up to move in a "flash" drill, the only noise is the barked commands of the officers and the clang of metal on metal as the weapons and 120mm shells are slapped into place on armored vehicles.

In two minutes, the position is completely erased.

Aside from the weapons company, there are three companies of riflemen - "the killers of the last 300 meters" among the 1,042 men of the 2nd Foreign Legion Regiment.

Their guns are supplemented only by the mortars, Milan anti-tank missiles and lightly armored Sagaie tanks.

The total French contigent numbers 4,000, including an infantry regiment and 42 helicopters based at King Khaled Military City. They are all under Saudi command at headquarters level in Riyadh.

The Legion's exact position cannot be mentioned but it is "not so very far" from the border. No other troops lie in front of them. There are Syrians to the east and nobody to the west.

The legionnaires look different from most of the tens of thousands of troops in the U.S.-led multinational forces deployed in Saudi Arabia. They are older on average. There is no flab.

Legionnaire John Garcia, 20, left his native Bronx, N.Y., eight months ago and signed on for five years.

"I wanted the real thing," he says.

He left the U.S. Army in disgust after two years in Korea.

"They have all the commercials and stuff but when you go through it its really nothing. It's slack. There's a lot of red tape."

The Legion is no longer the last refuge of criminals. Candidates are carefully vetted before undergoing intense training at Camp de la Courtine in Nimes, 90 miles west of Marseille.

The 60 nationalities at this Saudi desert camp have been molded into a unified force through the training. All learned French, the language of their orders. All have experience in Chad, Guiana, Djibouti or other former French colonies where the Legion is stationed on a regular basis to shore up weak governments.

Most appear eager to fight Iraq.

"We need operations like this from time to time to unwind," says Cpl. Adrian Tape, 35, originally from the Ivory Coast.

They train constantly, trying to get a sense of distance in a land without reference points.

"Sweat saves blood," says Germain.

The troops have a penchant for exotic headgear. Some heads are swathed in long scarves like Bedouin, with only their Ray-Bans exposed. Others wear burlap strips for camouflage that look like dreadlocks.

In camp, the men pass the time playing cards. The company commanders share the same tents as the men. It builds solidarity.

The legionaires have heard reports of morale problems among the American troops.

"They've lost their discipline," says Garcia.

Over lunch, the officers give a Gallic shrug and purse their lips when asked about their role in Saudi Arabia. For the moment it is defensive and there is no indication when it might change.

If there is no combat within five or six months, the men will be rotated back to France and other legionnaires will arrive. Salaries, which start at $600 a month, are at least doubled for the time in the desert.