Allies offering Iraqi prisoners showers, soccer WAR IN THE GULF

February 15, 1991|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Sun Staff Correspondent

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- War is no picnic, but Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody can at least be assured of hot food, showers, soccer games and, coming soon, big-screen television.

Standard British accommodations include individual toilets and bunk beds. There are also showers, three hot meals a day and top-of-the-line British S-10 gas masks, better than those many troops have been issued.

And for those Iraqis who are Christians, Saudi Arabian prison camps are allowing them a measure of religious freedom that has been largely denied to Western allied forces throughout this Muslim land.

"It's outrageous, a real disgrace," a British soldier complained yesterday. "We have no loos [toilets], no showers and sleep on the sand. How do you think we feel?"

Some details about the treatment of Iraqi prisoners of war began to emerge this week, coming mainly from senior allied military officials but also from journalists who visited a British POW camp yesterday.

U.S. officials are planning to take a group of selected reporters to one of five U.S.-operated POW camps today.

In their descriptions so far, allied military officials have tried to draw the starkest contrast possible between their care and feeding of Iraqi soldiers and their strong belief that allied pilots and soldiers held by the Iraqis are being physically abused and used as "human shields" to discourage bombing of key Iraqi military installations.

Nowhere is the contrast as striking as with living conditions at the U.S. camps, senior U.S. officials said.

"We take very good care of them," Army Gen. Gus Pagonis, the top U.S. logistics officer in Saudi Arabia, said recently.

Although all prisoners are transferred to Saudi custody within five to 10 days of their capture, "a lot of them don't want to leave. They want to stay and become workers in the camp," he said.

Another senior U.S. military official said Iraqi prisoners were encouraged to organize soccer games and to cook their own meals drawn from native foodstuffs provided by a Saudi contractor.

"Not knowing what their diet was or what they preferred, we offered them a menu in the initial stages and said, 'Get together and pick what you like to eat,' " the official said. "They're super cooks; they make excellent food.

"They're very comfortable with that [and] they've invited us to eat with them," he said, adding that the head surgeon on a medical team treating prisoners "has invited them all back to Buffalo [in New York] after the war."

The senior official disclosed plans to obtain generators to hook up big-screen TVs because many prisoners have been asking for news of the world.

Saudi officials have pledged to treat the prisoners well and have even asked the U.S. military to supply Bibles to enable Iraqi Christians to hold religious services, he said.

Several Marines who encountered Iraqi soldiers trying to surrender this week said that most seemed afraid of being killed by Americans. But many soon learn they're in good hands, they said.

"Some catch on real quick," said Cpl. Raid Shihadeh, an Arab-American who acts as an interpreter for the 1st Marine Division. "We've had some guys come into the interrogation and say, 'Where's my cigarettes?' "

"One guy said he has a sister in Detroit," said Sgt. John Young Jr. "He said he wanted to go to Burger King."

There are now more than 1,000 Iraqi prisoners, most of them deserters who have crossed into Saudi territory, some by crawling through Iraqi minefields to surrender.

U.S. officials said the flow of Iraqi soldiers across the border had picked up with the intensifying of allied bombing but still amounted to a tiny portion of the 545,000-strong Iraqi force in the area.

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