Prisoners present challenge to troops

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 23, 2003

The good news for American and British forces invading Iraq is that thousands of Iraqi soldiers have raised white flags -- putting up their hands rather than fight.

The tough question now: What to do with all these people?

The first prisoners of war captured in southern Iraq were searched and herded into temporary barbed wire enclosures. Troops then went to work building camps and providing medical care, food and water for the mix of uniformed soldiers and ragtag fighters in T-shirts.

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But it may not be so easy in coming days.

In the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. forces were overwhelmed by 69,000 surrendering Iraqi soldiers, many of whom wandered around the battlefields looking for anybody, including reporters, to take them captive. Minding the POWs hindered some American combat units.

This time around, military officials say they expect 270,000 Iraqis -- or more than half the nation's army -- to lay down their arms. That began Friday as U.S. and British troops swept into southern Iraq on Friday: an Iraqi division, numbering some 8,000 men, gave up outside Basra.

Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said those captured were civilians.

In either case, it poses logistical challenges as the U.S.-led forces advance on Baghdad and prepare to occupy Iraq for an extended period of time when the conflict ends.

It could also pose a threat: Captured enemy troops will be behind advancing troops, notes Kenneth Bacon, a former Pentagon spokesman who now heads Refugees International.

''One of the things they've promised officers is that they'd let them keep their sidearms, stay in their barracks, and try to use them as policemen, guards as soon as possible,'' Bacon said.

On the road to Basra on Saturday, about 50 Iraq prisoners could be seen packed tightly into two circles of concertina wire.

U.S. forces have issued English-Arabic command cards to front line units, with phonetic translations of such phrases as ''Stop or I will shoot,'' ''Surrender'' and ''You are a prisoner.''

Troops have been trained how to keep civilians out of harm's way while dealing with POWs, and how to use judo holds to search a belligerent prisoner.

Military police following behind attacking troops are to collect prisoners and move them to a better, more secure holding area and then to a permanent detention center inside Iraq. Kuwait and other Persian Gulf states have said they don't want POWs on their turf.

Almost immediately after hundreds of Iraqi troops surrendered to Allied forces invading southern Iraq, Britain's Queens Dragoon Guards began setting up POW camps in the desert, according to a British media pool report.

Plans call for Army lawyers to be on hand to ensure compliance with international treaties like the 1950 Geneva Convention and for visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Iraq's Interior Minister Diab al-Ahmed warned that American and British forces shouldn't count on Geneva Convention protections if they get captured.

''Most probably they will be treated as mercenaries, hirelings and as war criminals,'' al-Ahmed said. ''For sure, international law does not apply to those.''

Several American POWs from the 1991 Gulf War reported being beaten and sexually assaulted by Iraqis. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to say how the United States might respond if American prisoners were mistreated, but he said such actions by Iraq ''would be a terrible mistake.''

Later, the Iraqi Satellite TV released a statement from Saddam Hussein that Iraq will respect the enemy prisoners who are captured by our brave armed forces.

''Their rights will be respected in accordance with the law on prisoner rights provided by the Geneva Convention, despite our knowledge that the U.S. administration perpetrated the most grotesque crimes against our people and humanity,'' the statement said.

Later, Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf said that Saddam ''ordered that despite all the crimes … treatment of foreign soldiers will be according to Geneva convention.''