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When Some Don’t Want to Go Home

Victorious allied forces are still tallying the number of Iraqi military captives in their custody, even as the first moves are under way to arrange an early exchange of war prisoners. The legal imperative for prompt action stems from Article 118 of the Geneva Convention of 1949: “Prisoners of war shall be repatriated without delay after cessation of hostilities.” That’s straightforward enough. The problem is that it doesn’t consider that some POWs might prefer not to be repatriated.

There are already indications that a lot of Iraqi soldiers, fearful of returning to a country still controlled by Saddam Hussein and his brutal Baath Party, would resist being sent home. They have good reason to worry. During the Iraq-Iran War the regime didn’t hesitate to execute those it accused of having failed in battle. During the Kuwait war, Iraqi death squads patrolled the battle zone, shooting soldiers suspected of trying to desert or of lacking the will to fight. It’s not implausible that for some Iraqi soldiers the very act of surrender would be regarded as a capital offense. This is, after all, a regime desperate now to blame others for its own ineptitude.

The issue of involuntary repatriation is one the United States has had to face before. It did the right thing then. It should do the right thing now.

The earlier occasion came almost 40 years ago, during the long negotiations that finally led to an armistice in the Korean War. The United States and its allies, fighting under the auspices of the United Nations, held tens of thousands of North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war. The Communist side demanded that all must be repatriated. But it quickly became apparent that many of the prisoners would resist being sent back. President Harry Truman, disregarding the advice of senior military commanders, decided that there would be no forced repatriation. “We will not buy an armistice,” he said, “by turning over human beings for slaughter or slavery.”

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This firm stand prompted the Communists to break off the truce talks and almost certainly led to a prolonging of the fighting. In the end, though, Truman’s principled view prevailed. Out of about 170,000 Chinese and North Korean prisoners fully half, after being interviewed by neutral nations’ observers and representatives of their own governments, refused repatriation.

Iraq, fortunately, doesn’t have the military leverage the Communist side had during the Korean War. It is in no condition to resume fighting if some Iraqis resist repatriation. How many might do so should soon be known. The problem then will be to see which Arab countries, if any, are prepared to offer asylum to those Iraqi soldiers who don’t want to go home again.


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