Every war has a front and a rear. Rear is better.

Al-Khobar, for example, is a thriving commercial center serving Saudi Arabia's oil-producing region and a world away from the killing and maiming.GIs dug into the sand along the kingdom's desert border with Iraqi-occupied Kuwait might well envy those lucky enough to draw duty in Al-Khobar.

On this sunlit Sunday, Sgt. Tammy Bresette, 22, bought a chocolate birthday cake to celebrate the 27th birthday of her husband Peter, a fellow sergeant who is billeted with her.

The Bresettes are part of a medical detachment based near the calm blue water of the Persian Gulf and its wide beaches.

At the Safeway supermarket beside the gulf, Tammy even found candles for the cake.

"It's a surprise party for my husband," said Tammy, decked out in desert camouflage.

The sergeant said she has suffered no harassment from Muslim males on her shopping expeditions.

"They stare," she said, "but they're real nice."

At shops facing the gulf, allied forces can buy T-shirts displaying a map of the kingdom and proclaiming "I was there."

They can also ingest fast food at the House of Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

At the same shopping center, wealthy Arabs canbuy the expensive wares of Givenchy and Christian Dior.

The center also has a bank of outdoor pay telephones where the poor Asians who do most of the work in this country line up to call home.

Al-Khobar's fruit and vegetable shops display convincing evidence that oil money can buy just about anything.

There are lemons from Turkey, oranges from Egypt, apples from the United States, artichokes from Kenya, tangerines from Lebanon, plums from Swaziland, Kiwifruit from New Zealand and mangoes from India.

Rumors fed by boredom and fear eventually travel from the front to the rear.

One of the more bizarre ones is that President Bush turned down an offer by Saudi King Fahd to pay each GI $1,500.

Sgt. Bresette said she believes the grunts up front deserve such a payoff, but her friend Spec. Duane Hudson, 26, disagreed.

"It would be morally wrong," said Hudson, who is from Akeley, Minn. , in the North Woods. "It would give the impression that we had been bought off to do a job."

There have been some missile alerts in this region but no injuries. Some people took cover but others watched the Iraqi projectiles shot down by U.S. Patriot missiles. Others fell harmlessly into the gulf or the desert.

In war, the rear sometimes can become the front. But, for now, the rear is still better.