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Iraq: Desert Dispatch -- Correspondents Take POWs In Iraq, Among Other Duties

  • Charles Recknagel

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel has been hopping in and out of southern Iraq from Kuwait over the past week as he reports on a war still so new that it is not safe to stay overnight in most places correspondents visit. He says one of the surprises for reporters trying to cover the war is that Iraqi army deserters occasionally mistake journalists for allied soldiers and surrender to them. Just such a thing happened to our correspondent recently -- as he describes in this report.

Umm Qasr, Iraq; 29 March (RFE/RL) -- Journalists don't expect to take prisoners of war, but the team of reporters I am traveling with in southern Iraq has already taken two.

It happened yesterday in the port of Umm Qasr as we stopped to take photos of a colorful wall-sized portrait of Saddam Hussein near the old port. Some of the members of our multinational group of three reporters, translator, and driver wanted their own portraits taken with the Iraqi leader in one of his most virile poses -- firing off one-handed salutes with a heavy hunting rifle.

As we posed, a pair of young men approached, one holding his hands high in the air, the other with his hands clasped behind his neck. There are so many young men who approach foreigners in southern Iraq that we did not take special notice of them -- at first. But the way they maintained their servile posture made it clear they were determined to talk to us, even though they apparently took us for soldiers and seemed to fear for their lives.

One of the two men was 17 years old, the other 20, and both were emaciated. They told our interpreter that they were brothers who had deserted from the Iraqi army and that they had been hiding in the empty buildings nearby for more than a week since allied forces first attacked the port.

During that time, they had thrown away their uniforms after a sympathetic resident of the town gave them old track suits, plus two ragged sweaters, against the nighttime cold. They said they had subsisted on brackish water from the building pipes and the cookies that British soldiers often throw down from their vehicles to the crowds of children who call for handouts along the streets.

The younger man, Fadi, said that he and his brother Ali were from a village in northern Iraq some 150 kilometers east of Baghdad, where they worked in a lockmaker's shop. He said that a week before the war began, Iraqi intelligence agents rounded up men in the village, handcuffed them so they couldn't escape, and took them to a military camp.

There, for the first time in their lives, they say they received four days of training in how to clean, load, and shoot an assault rife. They also received old weapons which jammed every time a few shots were fired. Then they were bused down to Umm Qasr with their battalion and told, "This is part of your homeland. Defend it."

The brothers frequently spoke at once as they tried to tell us that they had been forced onto the front line through no fault of their own: "What did we do? Nothing. They brought us by force to be on the front line and to fight. They forced us to take machine guns, mortars, and artillery and to fight. We didn't want to do that. We want to go home, but we don't know how. Even God doesn't permit things like this to happen."

They continued: "[We got] only four days of training. They said it's wartime and you have to fight, even if you don't know how. They forced us."

The men told us they and many others fled their unit within hours of the opening U.S. and British attacks because they had no wish to die for Hussein's regime. At first, they say they hid from the British troops, who fully secured the town just five days ago. They say they made up their minds to surrender after they met a man who had fought against the U.S. in the 1991 Gulf War and told them that they would be well-treated by the foreign soldiers if they were captured.

Now, they said, all they wanted was for us to imprison them. They also said they were prepared for anything that might be done to them.

First, we took them to British Army headquarters, which is in a port authority building that once served as an Iraqi intelligence hotel. But there was a throng of townspeople in front of the building and, as soon as we stopped, we were surrounded by onlookers.

Some of the men in the crowd quickly deduced that the men in our car were deserters. One man sneered at them contemptuously, causing Ali to check that the car door was locked. The others in the crowd seemed simply curious, but in their midst the boys fell into a deep gloom.

To escape the crowd, we drove instead to a British POW camp that is on the outskirts of the city. Along the way, one of the brothers gave his family's phone number to our translator, asking if they could call to say they were alright. But a moment later, they asked us to ignore that request. Ali explained that their father had told them to fight bravely and they did not want to disappoint him.

At the entrance to the POW camp, we advised some British soldiers building a sandbagged bunker out front that we had two men who wanted to surrender. The soldiers did not look surprised. One accompanied us to the car, greeted Fadi and Ali and, placing his hand gently on their shoulders, said, "Come on, fellows."

They were clearly not the first who had turned themselves in voluntarily.

Sergeant Major Nick Wilson, one of the senior British soldiers at the gate, talked with us before we left. He said the two brothers would be "fed, watered, and processed." When we asked if his camp was getting many prisoners, he said yes.

"They're coming in from all directions," he said. "It's a steady flow. But this is the first time the press has brought them."

The POW camp itself is a sprawling compound of white tents lined up in orderly fashion and off-limits to journalists. Parked beside the tents is a fleet of battered Iraqi intercity transport buses used by the British Army to collect prisoners from around the region as allied forces advance northward.

It was impossible to learn at the camp how many men have already been interned there or how long any of them will be held. But at least we knew that two of them were happy to be inside.

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