Some of the tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers who have surrendered are likely to fall into the hands of the 290th Military Police Company from Towson, a National Guard unit that is part of a battalion specifically trained to guard prisoners of war.
Families of the 290th soldiers said letters and calls home indicated the unit had built a prison camp close to the Kuwaiti border and that in the weeks leading up to the ground war they were guarding Iraqis who had deserted or been captured.
Jim Pasierb, a spokesman at the military Joint Information Bureau in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, couldn't say yesterday precisely what the 290th was up to since the start of the ground war last weekend, only that the company was probably doing what it was trained to do. The policy of the gulf war allies is to hold prisoners temporarily and hand them over to the Saudi government, Pasierb said, but that process may be slower now that the allies must handle so many prisoners, at last count more than 80,000.
Many of the families of soldiers in the 290th knew more about what the unit was doing before the ground war started. In the few calls soldiers have made since the ground war, they and their families generally preferred to talk about safety and well-being in the midst of war, not the daily routine of a prison camp.
Pat Fallon, a leader of the support group for families of the 290th, said her husband called yesterday and mentioned that his camp had received a group of new prisoners the day before. But he didn't say how many.
Mary Raab of Overlea heard from her son, Ron Jr., in a call last week before the start of the ground war, that the MP unit was guarding about 15 prisoners at the time. One of the prisoners, a 19-year-old man who had polished his English while studying in the United States, told his captors of fearing reprisals at home in Iraq if his identity were made public, Raab said. The prisoner "cried a lot because he he thought Saddam Hussein would kill his family," Raab said. "They're scared to death."
Raab said her son reported that the prisoners were hungry and that some arrived with untended open sores. Before the ground war, the prisoners were staying two or three days in camp before being handed over to the Saudis.
Raab said the soldiers were living in tents and in the company of "kangaroo rats," guinea pig-sized rats, which her son told her have the welcome capacity to eat scorpions.
Her son told her of watching the night sky split into spangles as nearby Patriot missiles thwarted two Scud attacks, she said. "He described it as beautiful."
In setting up the camp, soldiers enclosed it with barbed wire. A guardsman from Catonsville wrote his wife that the unit had built a prison camp somewhere in Saudi Arabia and was receiving prisoners, whom he referred to in his letters as "visitors."
The woman, who asked not to be identified out of concern for her safety, joked that her husband "considers himself a barbed wire technician now. They've put up so much. For a couple of days that's all they were doing."