Surrendering Iraqis rejoice that their part in gulf war is over WAR IN THE GULF

February 26, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

WITH EGYPTIAN FORCES IN SOUTHWEST KUWAIT -- On the day after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered his soldiers to fight to the death, an Iraqi lieutenant named Mohammed had but a single command for his 40 men as Egyptian tanks rolled toward him through the sand.

"I ordered them not to fight," he said. "Myself personally, I did not fight at all."

But what of the wishes of his commander-in-chief? "He is a criminal, generally speaking," Mohammed said. "He is a criminal, and he is killing his people."

Mohammed, who withheld his last name for fear of reprisals against his family, spoke yesterday afternoon as he sat on the ground with 21 other Iraqi officers. All had surrendered to the Egyptians within the previous hour, and each had told his men to give up without a fight.

Twenty yards away was the result of their orders -- 350 Iraqi soldiers sat in a large square, legs crossed in front of them, while six Egyptians stood guard with bayonets fixed.

Such tactics added up to an easy day for the Egyptians, who began advancing at 6 a.m. in several columns of tanks, trucks and artillery pieces, manned and supported by 10,000 troops.

By 3 p.m. they had moved to this point, about 12 miles into Kuwait, and by nightfall they hoped to push another eight miles, officers said. The sharp, deep, stomach-shaking booms of nearby howitzers and missile launchers indicated that a path was being cleared, and a sudden rattle of machine guns a mile to the north signaled that the attack was being pressed.

But for Mohammed and his men, the war was blessedly over.

"From the beginning of the war I don't agree with the ideas of the president at all," he said. "But we are obliged to stay here because they will kill us and our families if we don't."

So, he said, he and his men deserted their trenches and retreated before the Egyptians arrived, then returned with hands in the air after the Egyptians took their position.

Despite the mass surrenders yesterday, the Egyptian advance wasn't all that simple.

For one thing, there were multiple lines of fortifications and obstacles to overcome, although in many ways such defenses fell far short of the ominous billing offered by U.S. generals during prewar briefings.

The first casualty of these overblown expectations -- on this sector of the front, at least -- was the berm of sand and rock supposedly 10 feet high. Instead it was about 3 feet high and could even be crossed by some four-wheel-drive vehicles.

A half-mile farther was the first of two minefields through which the Egyptians cleared a road using plow-fronted armored vehicles followed by dirt-pushing bulldozers.

Two miles after that came one of the Iraqis' vaunted oil trenches. Although it was about 10 feet deep, the black crude oil within had sunk until only about two feet of it was visible. The sandy sides of the trench showed no signs it had ever been ablaze, as Mr. Hussein had vowed.

Another mile beyond was the second minefield, bordered on the far side by large coils of barbed wire.

In negotiating these obstacles, the Egyptians had hoped for allied air support. But cloudy skies and intermittent rain killed those hopes. "So today we are unlucky," said Major Ahmed Morsi, an Egyptian signal officer.

But there was plenty of artillery support, which more than made up for the occasional round of short-range missiles fired by the Iraqis as the Egyptians crossed into Kuwait.

The only apparent casualties during this part of the attack were 10 Egyptians injured when their rocket launcher misfired, spraying them with scattered metal. The men lay on the ground next to a medical truck. Artillery moved forward around them as one moaned and cursed while a medic removed shrapnel from his left thigh. The wound was then stitched up without an anesthetic.

The going got tougher when the Egyptian infantry reached Iraqi trenches, where in some quarters the enemy was firing back.

When asked if he had been fired at, Egyptian Private Talal Hassen tapped the canteen strapped on his hip. Its canvas cover was stained with drying blood. "From my friend" who had been walking next to him, he said. "But he is now OK."

The double line of Iraqi trenches Mr. Hassen reached a few moments later were anything but the formidable deep fortifications described during the past several months.

Each was narrow, and only about five feet deep, punctuated every 30 yards by bunkers of roughly the same depth. Of five bunkers inspected, only one -- with cinder block walls and a foot-thick ceiling of steel-reinforced concrete -- seemed built to withstand an impact. The other four were covered by a few 4-by-4 wood beams and two layers of sandbags.

Inside were the signs of forlorn life. There were a few thin, shabby foam mattresses, some discarded helmets and scattered boxes still loaded with bullets and grenades. No food rations were seen.

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