DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- At least 180 Iraqi soldiers have fled to Saudi Arabia as defectors, and dozens more filter back and forth across the border every day seeking food and water from front-line Arab troops, according to senior U.S. officials here.
The defections have become a source of U.S.-Saudi friction, with U.S. officials complaining that they have been barred from the interrogations of the Iraqi soldiers and expressing concern that the Saudis may be doing too little to encourage a further exodus.
Some U.S. officials said that they viewed with particular misgiving a scene played out daily along
the northern border, where small groups of Iraqis cross over to Saudi positions for amiable visits and then are permitted to return to their positions on the other side of the frontier.
Saudi Arabia's handling of the incidents has underscored the unusual fraternal relations between the two large Arab military forces aligned against each other across Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
"It's basically a practice that's going on all along the border," said one ranking U.S. military official. "The Saudis see it as taking care of their Moslem brothers."
In disclosing for the first time the sizable number of Iraqi defectors, the U.S. officials expressed frustration at the unwillingness of their Saudi counterparts to present the soldiers to the public -- a step the Americans believe could have significant propaganda value.
At the same time, they complained that the exclusion of U.S. experts from debriefing sessions with the Iraqis meant that the United States had gained little reliable insight into even the day-to-day atmosphere among Iraqi forces.
"The Iraqi soldiers come across, and they tell the Saudis everything they think the Saudis want to hear," one ranking U.S. official said. "Then the Saudis turn around and tell us everything they think we want to hear.
"That means by the time it gets to us, we're left with lots of stories about unhappy soldiers, shortages of food and equipment and no paychecks," the official said. "But we're not so sure it's really like that."
The number of Iraqi defectors appears consistent with unconfirmed accounts by Kuwaiti officials in exile, who have said that about four to five soldiers a day have turned themselves over to Saudi authorities.
A well-informed U.S. military official said that most of the defectors had been enlisted men rather than officers. He said he had heard no reports suggesting that any of them had brought with them equipment or intelligence of particular value.
But the official said that the United States nevertheless regarded the defections as a sign of significant dissatisfaction within Iraq's armed forces. He said U.S. intelligence experts would continue to seek more direct access to the defectors on the ground that interviews could yield important information about the morale, well-being and general preparedness of Iraqi soldiers on the other side of the line.
The Saudis have played down the value of the information provided by enlisted men and have warned that a military confrontation could be provoked if, for example, a large number of Iraqi soldiers sought to escape en masse against the determined opposition of their sentries.