DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA — A U.S. military official describing the condition of Iraq prisoners of war was misquoted in yesterday's editions of The Sun. After noting that many were "covered with lice and they have some open sores" and some are "down to one meal a day," the official added, "it doesn't mean to say they are diseased and totally falling apart."
The Sun regrets the error.
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- Dozens of recently captured Iraqi prisoners of war are "diseased and totally falling apart," a sign that the Iraqi army's living conditions, morale and willingness to fight may be eroding, a senior U.S. military official said yesterday.
"It's too early to tell if we have a trend of military significance . . . [but] it does reflect some indication that they're not doing that well," said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Robert B. Johnston.
FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION
He and other allied officials stopped short of drawing firm conclusions about whether the overall quality of Iraq's fighting forces, especially its largest component, the People's Army, was declining. This group, a mix of volunteers and reservists, traditionally has been an adjunct to the well-equipped and better-trained Republican Guards.
Allied officials also tried to dampen speculation that large numbers of Iraqi troops might surrender or defect in the coming weeks.
At a briefing at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, General Johnston said 111 Iraqi soldiers were now in U.S. custody as prisoners of war, although roughly 30 were defectors, or what officials called "line-crossers."
Under current policy, any Iraqis who voluntarily turn themselves over to allied forces will be held in the same compounds as combatants who are captured. But U.S. officials said housing the prisoners ultimately may become the responsibility of the Saudi government.
The total includes 51 Iraqis who surrendered after a skirmish with U.S. naval forces Wednesday at the small Kuwaiti island of Qaruh.
The number also includes the 23 prisoners who were captured without resistance on a Kuwaiti oil platform last week. Most of the Iraqis, who were hungry and dirty, "put their hands up, thanked us in their own way and cooperated," said Navy Cmdr. Dennis Morral, skipper of the guided missile frigate USS Nicholas.
In this week's incident, the Iraqi crews of two mine-laying ships and Iraqi troops on Qaruh fought U.S. forces before surrendering, U.S. military officials said. Three Iraqi soldiers were killed, while U.S. forces did not sustain any casualties, U.S. officials said.
"They did not return fire very vigorously," General Johnston said. "I think the fact that they were grateful to be EPWs [enemy prisoners of war] should tell you that they did not fight hard. They surrendered."
After processing and examining all the Iraqi prisoners to date, U.S. officials have found "that a large number, if not all, of the Iraqi EPWs are covered with lice and have some open sores," he said. "And some, if not all, report having pretty slim rations, a few saying that they're down to one meal a day.
"Which if nothing else leads me to say that they are diseased and totally falling apart, with some indications of the conditions that they are experiencing on the other side of the wire," the general said.
In response to a question, he said the poor condition of the prisoners also suggested that efforts by allied warplanes to cut off supply and communications lines to Iraqi forces in Kuwait were beginning to work.
Allied officials said they believed Iraqi troops wishing to surrender were "trapped" between the defensive line at the Kuwaiti-Saudi border -- laden with obstacles -- and Republican Guards in the rear.
For this reason, the allies were not expecting to see a trend toward significantly more Iraqi defections, said Lt. Gen. Sir Peter de la Billiere, commander of British forces. He described the volume as a "trickle."
General Johnston, noting that only the smallest fraction of Iraq's 545,000 troops in Kuwait and southern Iraq were in U.S. custody, said: "We view their capabilities in terms of tanks, artillery and fundamental combat power as something we have to deal with militarily, and not wish it away as though they were going to pull out a white flag and come streaming through the border."