Weeks after war's end, Iraqis still flee to U.S. post WAR IN THE GULF

March 24, 1991|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

DEMARCATION LINE, Southern Iraq -- Twenty-three days after the end of the war, the Republican Guard soldier limped on one crutch toward this northernmost U.S. checkpoint and surrendered by throwing his black beret to the ground.

"Saudi Arabia," he said, simply. He knew where prisoners of war are sent.

Whatever trials led to the surrender of Muhammad Abbu Hassan yesterday, this was their end. Tears rolled down the 26-year-old soldier's cheeks as Army Sgt. Kyle Albright searched him for weapons.

"You'll be safe. Safe," Sergeant Albright assured him.

This checkpoint 34 miles inside Iraq is the most forward position of allied soldiers and greets a steady dribble of surrendering Iraqi soldiers and fleeing refugees.

Two thousand yards away is the final Iraqi checkpoint.

"We wave to them, and they wave back," said Pfc. Sonny Hanson, a military policeman from Raceland, La. "The first day we were up here, a group of Iraqi soldiers drove up and asked for directions."

The forces strung along the demarcation line separating the allied and Iraqi armies in southern Iraq are settling in with an air of permanence.

The tanks and machine gun nests of the allies are dug in, their barrels pointed at the Iraqis across the line. Bulldozers have pushed berms of dirt and a few wrecked cars into fortifications to bolster the checkpoints.

"We were told we may be here six months to a year. We'll stay for however long they need us," said Spc. Jason McGee, at a checkpoint named Charlie a dozen miles down the line. But he added, hopefully, "If they need us to go home, I'm ready."

He was squeezed into the cramped cockpit of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that sat with its treaded wheels toed on the demarcation line. He peered through a special observation scope built into the turret.

Through the scope's violet sight, cross hairs centered on an Iraqi soldier as he emerged from a tent on the other side of the demarcation line.

The Iraqis apparently do not know they are being watched so closely. On Friday, Specialist McGee said, a busload of soldiers changed from uniforms into civilian clothes as he watched through the turret. They were taken into custody when they tried to pass as civilians.

Surrendering Iraqi soldiers are disarmed and sent south to Saudi Arabia, even as the first busloads of Iraqi POWs are being driven north to be released as part of the agreement set when the fighting stopped.

Lt. Col. Michael Deegan, at Checkpoint Charlie, does not know why Iraqis at the checkpoints let soldiers cross through to surrender.

"All I know is we're still getting POWs. My instructions are to apprehend them," he said.

Business at the demarcation line is a spillover of the turmoil behind the closed doors of Iraq. Refugees come, walking and weary, from the interior. They bring fearsome accounts of carnage from fighting between rebels and forces loyal to President Saddam Hussein.

"Saddam Hussein killed my mother and the son of my neighbors. [Soldiers] shot them in the street like dogs," said a 26-year-old teacher from An Nasiriya who would not give his name. "They shot Karbala and An Najaf with napalm and chemicals. The people of Iraq hate Saddam Hussein."

The refugees pass through the U.S. checkpoints, but most are stopped when they reach the Kuwaiti border. The teacher and two friends were trudging back to An Nasiriya after four days at the border.

"We want to go to America as refugees. The Americans said they can give us food and medicine, but they have no place for us," the disappointed teacher said. "All the doors are closed. So we go back to our fate. We know we will be killed."

Many others prefer to wait on the border, living in white Red Cross tents or rude shelters built of tin and cardboard in the desert sand.

At an aid station near the border, Dr. Carolyn Sullivan, an Army physician, worked inside a tent while bedraggled and weary women and children waited outside to see her.

"A lot of these people have walked for days to get here," she said. "They are tired. They have mild dehydration. They are hungry." Sometimes children arrive who lost limbs to one of the bombs or mines that litter the battlefield, she said.

Those cases, and the occasional gunshot victim from the fighting in Iraq, are rushed to a hospital in Kuwait. The others patiently form lines between corridors of rolled barbed wire, waiting for Army rations.

Some of the stories are wrenching, say the soldiers. A man came to the checkpoint four days ago with a small boy with deep burns on his leg, black and blistered like Spc. Zachery Matson had never seen before.

"He said it was from napalm. He said they dropped napalm

between Basra and the border of Iran," said the Army interpreter. "Four other members of his family are dead."

Most of the refugees who have come from southern Iran in the last few days say Mr. Hussein's forces have regained control of Basra and most of the other southern cities, Specialist Matson reported.

"All [the rebels] have is a few Kalashnikov automatic weapons and pistols. It's no match for tanks and helicopters," he said. "The people tell us, 'Please come into Iraq.' They want help in the rebellion. They can't do it on their own. But I'm not George Bush. I can't just drive my tank into Basra."

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