War: surrender, furious battles and confusion

Iraqi tank squads refuse order to lay down arms

Tomato farmers held as POWs

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SHU AIBA, Iraq - The confused scene yesterday on the outskirts of Basra, the largest town in southern Iraq, typified the allied campaign so far: general retreat by the Iraqis with groups of fierce holdouts.

On the one hand, there was surrender. Across the southern desert yesterday, so many Iraqi soldiers gave up so quickly that U.S. Marines hardly knew what to do with them.

The surrender Friday of the Iraqi army's 51st Mechanized Division, coupled with similar capitulations across the plains yesterday, combined to form the sort of problem that a general might dream about: What to do with all these fighters who are throwing down their guns?

So yesterday, the Marines improvised: Iraqi prisoners bounced on the backs of enormous military cargo trucks. They sat cross-legged in makeshift barbed-wire jails. They stood in single-file rows in the middle of the six-lane Baghdad Highway.

But on the other hand, even with the hundreds of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered yesterday, there were still large groups who chose to stand and fight.

One of those groups gathered around the town of Zubayr, which stands at the western approach to Basra. There, a group of Iraqi tank commanders apparently decided to defy the orders of their senior officers, who agreed Friday to lay down their arms.

The holdouts had about 20 tanks in all, and by midmorning they were engaged in a furious battle with a platoon of American tanks, nearly twice as many as the Iraqis.

It quickly became apparent that it was a mismatch. With the Iraqis manning Soviet-era tanks, their American counterparts radioed for support from AH-1 Super Cobra gunships and British self-propelled howitzers.

Within an hour, more than a dozen trucks bearing hundreds of rounds of tank ammunition rumbled to the scene of the fight.

Near Basra, Iraqis kept surrendering.

"They are just showing up, hands in the air," said Maj. Patrick Cox, a Marine tank commander. "I think we've taken 400 prisoners since we got here."

When Cox's tank battalion swept in from Kuwait on Friday morning, he came upon a large group of Iraqi soldiers who had decided to surrender even before he arrived.

"They were waiting for us when we got here," Cox said.

The scene near the village of Shu Aiba seemed to illustrate the plight of the Iraqi soldiers who had chosen to surrender. When a platoon of Marines drove up the Baghdad Highway yesterday morning, they found three Iraqi soldiers waiting to surrender. The men had been living under a bridge, surviving on a diet of tomatoes.

By midmorning, the three Iraqi soldiers were sitting on blankets and picking from the bright yellow food packets provided by the Americans. They seemed ashamed to be prisoners, but made clear that a greater dread was life in the Iraqi army.

"We are not cowards, but what is the point?" said Ahmed Ghobashi, an Iraqi colonel from Baghdad. "I've got a rifle from World War II. What can I do against American airplanes?"

Ghobashi talked on for a while, detailing his participation in the disastrous wars begun by Saddam Hussein in Iran and Kuwait. He had been a professional soldier, he said, and he did not sign up to engage in fanciful adventures. As Ghobashi talked on, his tone grew bitter, until he concluded that Hussein must have a secret agenda.

"He doesn't give us enough to eat, and he doesn't pay us," Ghobashi said. "And then he starts this thing with the Americans and then tells us to defend the country against the invasion."

Ghobashi pursed his lips in contemplation and rendered his final opinion on Hussein.

"I believe he is an American agent," he said.

The American soldiers fanning out across the region say they are ready for the Iraqi prisoners, but there were signs that there might be unexpected complications.

As a column of tanks moved toward the northwest, the Marines took into custody a group of Iraqi soldiers who were willing to surrender, but also, apparently, a group of farmers caught up in the confusion.

The 11 farmers sat on the blacktop of the Baghdad highway. The Marines had rounded them up with others taken in the area, and without an Arabic interpreter present, they weren't able to ask the prisoners any questions. Instead, they handed them packs of American rations to eat while they sorted out their fate.

When an Arabic interpreter did arrive, it became clear that the 11 were not soldiers at all, but tomato farmers who lived in a nearby village.

"We'll sort everything out," 1st Sgt. Lew Ducett told the men. "Just have some lunch first."

Ali Kathem, one of the farmers, threw down his ration packet in frustration. "I don't want to eat lunch," Kathem said. "I want to go to my farm."

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