Allies estimate Iraqi casualties were 'enormous' WAR IN THE GULF

March 02, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- A large portion of Iraq's army cannot be accounted for, and the death toll may be far higher than imagined, military officials acknowledged yesterday.

Commanders say they do not know what happened to many of the half-million men Iraq was known to have amassed in Kuwait, even after considering widespread desertions and the mass surrenders by dispirited Iraqi troops.

"I think it's going to turn out to be enormous," Marine Brig. Gen. Richard I. Neal said of the Iraqi casualty rate, although he cautioned that he did not know a total.

A British officer said yesterday that the corpses of Iraqis were being buried by the allies in mass graves and that any identifying information found on the bodies was being given to the Red Cross.

The lightning ground war met wholesale surrender by Iraqi troops. Officials now say they have "50,000-plus" prisoners of war, and estimates put the final number of prisoners taken at 100,000 or more.

Iraqi soldiers continued surrendering yesterday, and "division headquarters woke up yesterday morning to find 40 Iraqis waiting for breakfast," said British Col. Barry Stevens.

Most of those surrendering are "cold, wet, hungry -- more than hungry, they are undernourished," he said.

There also were large numbers of desertions before the ground war began, officers said. Other Iraqi troops escaped north from Kuwait, although the end-sweep by the multinational forces effectively cut off their retreat. A trickle of unarmed soldiers is being allowed to return home without being taken prisoner.

But estimates of the prisoners, deserters and those who escaped do not begin to total the 500,000 men Iraq had brought to enforce its occupation of Kuwait.

Officers now suggest that the non-stop air bombardment aimed at destroying military equipment may have killed many people. At the Pentagon yesterday, Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly said allied forces may not find evidence of deaths brought by the bombings.

"Their tendency to keep morale up is to bury the dead while it's still dark," he said of the Iraqi military. "So there may be mass graves . . . that we don't even know about."

NTC Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the multinational force, has hinted at the likelihood of unexpectedly high Iraqi casualties.

"There were a very, very large number of dead in those units -- a very, very large number of dead," he said Wednesday. "We even found them in the trench lines."

Allied officers say there is no way of telling enemy casualties, but they also openly acknowledge that they do not want to repeat the inflated estimates of casualties in the Vietnam War that eroded the military's credibility. They also may fear an adverse reaction in Arab countries.

The Pentagon has confirmed 148 allied troops killed in action.

General Schwarzkopf is to meet tomorrow with Iraqi military officials, talks that could lead to a formal cease-fire. At the top of the agenda will be a release of prisoners of war and obtaining information from Iraq about the location of land and sea mines.

Officials in Riyadh said yesterday that troops of the multinational coalition still were finding occasional pockets of resistance, which they thought was from Iraqi troops who had not learned of the cease-fire.

Iraq continued its defiant attitude, meanwhile. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz complained of U.S. "provocations" under the cease-fire and demanded that all foreign forces leave his country immediately.

U.S. soldiers at a checkpoint yesterday stopped two buses with troopsheaded back to Iraq, and gunshots came from the second bus, General Neal said. The Americans returned fire, destroying the bus and taking nine passengers as prisoners, he said. None of the U.S. soldiers was hurt.

Of more danger is the huge number of mines left behind. An Army doctor and a medical specialist were killed yesterday when they turned off a roadway to accept the surrender of Iraqi soldiers and their vehicle hit a land mine, officials said.

"The battlefield still is a very dangerous area," General Neal said.

Iraqi prisoners who have been interrogated also have led U.S. intelligence officials to believe that the threat of chemical warfare was overrated, General Neal said yesterday.

Only one cache of chemical shells has been found in the field. Iraqi soldiers said they were "not comfortable" handling the materials, and their equipment "left a lot to be desired," he said.

"We might have created a picture that they had a better capability than they might have possessed," General Neal said.

Military officials also revealed that allied forces had regular daily contact with Kuwaiti resistance forces.

"I could literally pick up the phone and call them in Kuwait City," said a senior officer.

Those resisters helped direct the bombardments in the city.

U.S. officials stood by their assertion that Iraqi forces committed widespread atrocities in Kuwait before withdrawing. Most of the claims were based on reports from the Kuwaiti resistance, but "even if you discounted 70 percent of those stories, you'd still have enough to satisfy several judges for a while," said one officer.

The officials said that special Iraqi security forces apparently were responsible for the atrocities and that they may have escaped before the allies could close in around the city.

"They saw the handwriting on the wall early," he said.

"They got out way before the Marines got there."

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