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Iraqi POWs Tell Why They Refused to Fight : Prisoners: Threats of death, lack of food, fear for families are recounted in interviews with U.S. troops.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wesam M., a 20-year-old tank driver from Iraq’s feared 23rd Republican Guard Brigade, says he had only one goal when his unit spearheaded the brutal invasion of Kuwait city last Aug. 2.

“All I want to do is surrender,” he said Saturday. “That is all I think about.”

So, he and three friends threw down their rifles and deserted two days later. He was shot twice in the left leg but managed to hide for seven months with a Syrian living here. He finally gave up to the first Kuwaiti soldier he saw Tuesday.

“I do not want to fight,” he said. “Nobody does. For what? Kuwait is not our enemy.”

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Similar interviews with 20 Iraqi prisoners of war here help provide an answer to why Saddam Hussein’s long-promised “mother of all battles” was instead the astonishing mother of all surrenders.

The interviews also show many POWs are deathly afraid they will be returned to Hussein’s grim police state in an exchange of prisoners. That exchange will be a top priority when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the Gulf, meets Iraqi military leaders on the Kuwaiti border today to discuss terms for a permanent cease-fire.

“I want to stay in Kuwait,” said Abas A., a 30-year-old army mechanic. “My father . . . Saddam executed him because he refused to join the people’s army. I do not want to go home. He will kill me too.”

“I don’t like to go with Saddam there,” agreed Khalid D., 21, a wounded navy conscript. “He will force me in the military again and invade another country.”

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Some POWs were half-starved, too weak to walk when captured. Others spoke of the terror in the trenches as allied bombers rained death from above. One conscript is 60 years old; a few others, swears a U.S. officer, are only 13.

Some are mere farmers and mechanics, pressed to the front after the air war started Jan. 17. Others are Iraqi-Americans, another U.S. officer said, forced into the army while home, visiting relatives. Still others are professional soldiers, disgusted at the torture and looting that marked the bloody Iraqi occupation.

Four infantrymen were shot in the back as they ran to give up. Others had their white T-shirts confiscated--so they had no white flag to wave--and then watched their officers flee in stolen cars, leaving them to fend off the allied might.

Most important, perhaps, all are furious that Hussein sacrificed the world’s fourth-largest army--and brought devastation and humiliation to his country--for nothing.

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“He destroy all Iraq and the army,” said Ahmad M., a wounded infantryman. “Inshallah, God will crush him.”

“From Aug. 2, I thought this war would be the same result as happened--a disaster,” said Mahadi M., a 43-year-old Iraqi warrant officer. “Saddam, he is a crazy man. A lunatic.”

Overweight, balding and badly needing a shave, Mahadi stared mournfully at the ground. His filthy army jacket was torn, his hands and face black with dirt. His police captors had taken his shoes and socks.

“I am a soldier for 25 years,” he said, “but here, there is no just cause to fight for. All of us have been dragged here. We do not want to come. Why should we fight?”

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The POWs were interviewed at the Mubarak Hospital, where 35 were being treated for wounds, and at the Qadesiya police station in Kuwait city. All said they were being treated well. All asked that their last names not be used for fear of reprisal against their families still in Iraq.

Surrendering troops say their families have suffered enough, first from the six-month U.N. embargo that strangled their country, and then from the six-week war that pulverized it.

“My wife, my children, they have no milk, no medicine,” said Karim K., a 30-year-old civilian mechanic ordered into a truck on Jan. 18 and sent to Umkassar, a heavily bombed port in northern Kuwait. “They have almost nothing to eat.”

Other families were denied food ration cards, some were even jailed if a husband or son in the army went absent without leave.

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Another mechanic, Ali R., 30, said his mother in Najef, in northern Iraq, was thrown in jail for three days when he went AWOL. “After that I come back,” he said. “They beat me very bad.”

He was lucky. “My brother . . . he run away,” said Amir K., 23, a cook for the 68th Commando Division. “And they catch him and hang him.”

Despite the punishment, the POWs say Iraq’s army was so demoralized that 50% of some units, including the supposedly elite Republican Guard, had deserted by the time the ground war began.

“I don’t think there is a big difference between the Republican Guard and the army,” said Wesam, the tank driver. “We get 30 dinars more and a patch on the arm. It means nothing. Anybody can join. Only the officers are loyal.”

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Even then, not always. Jaber, a 20-year-old farmer before being drafted into the infantry, recalled surviving night after night of ferocious allied bombing in his bunker near the southern Iraq town of Wafra, only to watch his commander jump in a car and drive off alone as the allies approached.

As he left, Jaber said, the colonel leaned out the window and shouted, “We’ll meet you in Baghdad.” Jaber instead walked the 25 miles to Kuwait city to surrender.

One wounded infantryman confirmed reports that some units had death squads, ready to execute anyone who tried to give up.

“We are four (soldiers), we are surrendering,” he said. “Then we are shot in the back by Iraqi soldiers. The others all dead.”

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The 24-year-old soldier said he ate only two slices of bread a day in the final week of war. “We are hungry. Why should we fight? I have no sense of their war.”

The last official U.S. tally of Iraqi POWs was 50,000-plus, but some reports say there are as many as 175,000. And scores more were still surrendering Saturday from schools, homes and desert hide-outs in one of the most remarkable, and perhaps bloodiest, routs in military history.

Several Iraqis said they were terrified of gas attacks by their officers. And they complained that their desert defenses against allied attacks were meager: simple sandbags and tin roofing in most cases, not the deep and elaborate bunkers widely touted before the war.

In Kuwait city, for example, the Iraqis dug miles of simple beachfront bunkers and trenches, backed by antiaircraft guns and artillery. Scores of seaside villas and offices were turned into snipers’ nests, windows blocked with sandbags or concrete.

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None was likely to slow a Marine amphibious landing had one come. “They would have sliced through this like a knife through butter,” one U.S. officer said.

While conditions were hardly better during Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran, the enemy and the cause were different, the POWs said.

“Kuwait is Arabian and Islamic,” said Mahadi, an army veteran of 25 years. “There is no reason to fight for Kuwait. But there was a cause in Iran. They were our enemy.”

He said he hopes Hussein and his ruling Arab Baath Socialist Party “will disappear.” Then, he said, “we want a democracy so Iraqi people can be free.”

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Zuhir A., 26, a special forces commando at the battalion headquarters, said Kuwait “was an independent country with a flag and a legitimate government. Saddam said it was part of Iraq. It was not true.”

He paused and squinted into the smoke-smudged sky, dark gray from hundreds of oil wells torched by departing Iraqi troops.

“So you see,” Zuhir added, “There is no real reason to fight.”


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