Shocked by the savagery of Saddam Hussein’s repression of the uprising against him in southern Iraq, American troops manning the Persian Gulf War’s long cease-fire line say they would willingly fight their way north to Baghdad to topple the Iraqi dictator.
This attitude was repeatedly evident to a reporter who spent several days touring the U.S.-occupied zone, an area embracing more than 15% of the country.
Typical were feelings in the 2nd Cavalry’s I Troop, where despair was heavy on a sweltering afternoon here at the U.S. Army’s deepest post inside Iraq.
Under orders not to interfere, the Army scouts watched helplessly as Iraqi Republican Guard troops in nearby Samawah shelled a hospital and refugee camp, and rocketed and strafed civilians from a helicopter gunship.
And after Hussein’s shock troops recaptured the last known Shiite rebel stronghold late Thursday, the Americans could only listen as hundreds of refugees begged them to stop massacres of women and children.
“You go through a lot of training for war,” Lt. Tom Isom, 26, said later. “But they never teach you about this. . . . It’s very hard sitting here not being able to do what we can do.”
Even worse, the U.S. troops fear refugees may be penalized, or even executed, by Iraqi troops for having sought help from the Americans. Some field medics now remove U.S. labels from dressings and medicines, hoping to remove any “incriminating” signs.
“If they see we’ve given people help, even MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat), they’ll be killed,” said I Troop’s commander, Capt. Daniel Miller, 29. “Because they’re unclean.”
Miller compared the Republican Guard’s terminology and savage tactics to those of Adolf Hitler’s notorious SS troops in Nazi Germany.
“They say the town is unclean,” he said. “Meaning it’s not pro-Saddam, it’s defiled by the rebels. Apparently the means of cleansing it is to just go in and shoot all the people.”
Debate may rage in Washington over whether allied forces should have roared on to Baghdad to topple Hussein and wipe out his army during the ground war, instead of stopping at the Euphrates River on a temporary cease-fire line.
But there’s no debate here at Observation Post No. 3, a huge Iraqi oil refinery and tank farm turned to crumpled steel and twisted pipes by B-52 bombers early in the air war. One 500-pound bomb still lies unexploded amid the rubble and huge craters.
The refinery is 55 miles down a rutted desert track and more than 160 miles from the Kuwaiti border. The American Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Apache helicopters now based here are but a day’s drive from Baghdad.
“If they asked for volunteers, there’s not a man here who wouldn’t go north to finish the job,” Isom said. “There’s not a soldier out here who doesn’t want to finish it.”
Similar sentiments can be found across the U.S. occupation zone in southern Iraq. The 190-mile-wide front, mostly along Highway 8, is guarded by the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, with the 2nd Cavalry at the northwestern point.
The 18th Aviation Brigade holds the left flank in the desert, and the 1st Infantry Division is in reserve. The U.S. troops, most of whom arrived in December from Germany, do not control any major towns.
Across the bleak desert, where dust devils whirl over the sun-baked sands and swarms of gnats cover the skin, every American wants to go home. But many are intensely troubled at what they’ve seen, and worse, what’s likely to happen after they leave under a formal cease-fire agreement.
“I don’t want to even think about it,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Santy, 31, guarding Checkpoint Zulu. “Considering the stories these people have told, I don’t see Saddam Hussein letting these people live.”
“I think they will rapidly cross the river and hunt down anyone who fled,” agreed Maj. Douglas Macgregor, 38.
U.S. troops have given food, water and medical care to anti-Hussein resistance fighters but are under orders not to provide guns or other military assistance.
“The insurgents are living in Bedouin camps,” said Lt. Col. Mike Kabbe. “They’re burying their weapons in the desert, then they come back from town at 4 a.m. to have a chat with us.”
As the resistance has faltered in the south, so has the sad stream of refugees moving across the wind-swept wasteland. Up to 6,000 refugees a day passed U.S. checkpoints headed south early in the week. On Friday, only 693 passed.
But scores of Iraqi soldiers were captured. Some said they had been ordered to report to Iraq’s 7th Corps in Basra by April 1 or their families would be executed. Others simply surrendered, seeking food, water and safety since Republican Guard units had begun rounding up and executing men over 15.
“We are looking for hope,” said Abdel Mutalib, 25, a hollow-cheeked POW in a U.S. Army truck. “We are dead here.”
One old man brought his four sons, all in Iraqi uniform, to surrender at Checkpoint Zulu. They all cried as they bade their father goodby.
“Our destiny is unknown,” said Abas Moussa, 25. “A disaster has begun. We’ve had no rights for 25 years. Just famine, poverty and executions in the streets. What is our future?”
Haidar Qazem Ghali, 20, who walked 40 miles to surrender, had other questions. “Can we know what the end of the road will bring for Saddam?” he asked. “So we will have one drop of hope after we have left our families behind. Is there a solution?”
Many Iraqis think there is. One man handed a letter to Capt. H.R. McMaster, 28, at Checkpoint Eagle and then scurried away. It was addressed to President Bush.
“He said, ‘Saddam is killing many innocent people. You shouldn’t just stand by. Your army could go push Saddam out very easily. Your victory in Kuwait was great, but incomplete,’ ” McMaster recalled.
Some refugees began leaving squalid, overcrowded camps near Safwan, on Kuwait’s border, which has seen food riots and at least one murder. Bandit gangs are a further danger as they return home.
“We would like to leave (Iraq), but there is no way out,” said Saijal Khalaf, 19, a high school student reluctantly heading back to his family in Basra. “We can’t find anything to eat. A sackful of flour costs 400 dinars on the black market.”
That’s twice the 200 dinar cash bonus that Hussein supposedly has offered his ruthless troops to kill children of Shiite rebels, according to refugees and U.S. troops.
“They’re executing children with weapons and knives,” said one refugee from Nasariyah.
In Samawah, a Euphrates River city of 28,000, U.S. troops using helicopters and binoculars watched the Republican Guard shell the city hospital Wednesday, scoring two direct hits. Then they began shelling several hundred people camped in tents and under tarpaulins near the city’s railroad station.
“As best we can tell, it was only designed to kill civilians or terrorize them,” said Capt. Miller. “There was no military purpose.”
By 3 p.m. Thursday, after a nightlong artillery barrage into the city, and two days of attacks by a Soviet-built MI-8 Hip helicopter gunship, green resistance flags had fallen from water and communications towers. Nearby Al Khidr also quickly fell.
“It’s about done, I think,” said Miller. “They’re out of ammo. They’re out of guns. Basically, they’re outgunned. You can’t fight tanks and artillery with rifles.”
More than 2,000 refugees and resistance fighters soon flooded the U.S.-held refinery on the city’s southern outskirts, saying men and boys over 12 were being executed and buried in mass graves.
Terrified men paid 100 dinars to board trucks to the border. Black-clad women and crying children camped in the few surviving buildings and drank from a pool covered with thick green algae.
Unable to feed them, the U.S. troops pooled their MREs and twice tried handing out the leftovers.
“We had a riot both times,” said Miller. “So we stopped giving them food.”
The combat medics were swamped, evacuating 40 wounded civilians and treating 100 others. Dixon Figueroa, 27, scrambled to treat infants and children with drugs, syringes and medicines intended for adults.
“Nine years I’ve done, but these last two days were my worst,” he said wearily.
One 10-year-old had lost his hand. Another child had been machine-gunned. And an 18-month-old child somehow survived being shot in the chest at point-blank range with a pistol.
“When someone brings you a small baby with powder burns on his chest, what can you say?” said Isom. “What kind of people are these?”
The Americans warned the refugees to leave, saying U.S. troops will leave the refinery soon. A sign, posted in Arabic, recommended that the civilians head southeast toward Safwan.
“Saddam’s army may be following and you may fall under his rule,” the sign said.
On the concrete berm by one of the bombed-out oil tanks, a 52-year-old, well-dressed surveyor suddenly appeared to plead for help in halting English.
“I will go with you to America,” he said with a grin. “To hell with Iraq.”
When the soldiers explained that they could not help, the man began to cry. He then tore up a handful of Iraqi dinars, stamped on the remains and spat furiously on the ground.
“The world doesn’t care,” he said finally in Arabic, turning away. “We are carrying the burden of the crime of one man.”