When Iraq stormed into Kuwait on Aug. 2, setting the time bomb that would explode into war 51/2 months later, the Republican Guard took the lead.

These are Saddam Hussein's elite troops, his best-trained and best-equipped force. And ultimately, these are the fighters who pose the greatest obstacle to any ground assault by allied troops seeking to retake Kuwait.The allied military command is well aware of the threat posed by the guard, and has made them a prime bombing target throughout the air phase of the war.

At the start of the war, there were 150,000 guardsmen in six divisions under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Iyad Fathi al-Rawi; there have been reports that five other divisions were being formed.

Most were deployed far from the front lines, just north and west of the border between Iraq and Kuwait; ahead of them are two regular army divisions.

The placement is crucial; American military officials say the guard is there to weigh the allied thrust, and then use that insight to counterattack. In addition, they serve to block the frontline units from retreating.

The guard is equipped with top-of-the-line Soviet T-72 tanks, as well as multiple rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers and long-range heavy artillery. They wear special uniforms, are paid more and receive special treatment (they drink bottled spring water, for example), and are respected at home as the prime defenders of the nation.

"They get the first call. . . . They get the best that the dictatorship has to offer," said Austin Bay, an author and journalist on international matters.

The guards' adversaries describe them as professional soldiers, loyal, disciplined and adept. Bay is not entirely sold.

"I do think they are a significant force when they are fighting Kurds, or 13-year-old Iranians, or a surprised and outmanned force like the Kuwaiti army," he said, but "I don't think they're any super-soldiers."