BIRSHEERIAN, Iraq—He came down the hillside in the rain Tuesday night, picking his way past the land mines and the trip wires, slipping here and there in the mud, hoping not to be discovered by any of his fellow Iraqi soldiers.
He knew what awaited him if he were found out: 10 other would-be defectors had been executed in front of his unit the previous day.
The Iraqi defector, a 31-year-old watermelon farmer who joined Saddam Hussein's infantry three years ago, could not take it any longer: living in muddy trenches, the starvation rations, the monthly pay of $4, the plummeting morale and now, the terrifying bombs and missiles from coalition aircraft.
The illiterate, reed-thin private in the 108th Infantry Brigade turned himself over to Kurdish guerrilla fighters at this bleak outpost on the northern border between Iraq and the Kurd-held region that lies beyond Saddam's control. He gave his name, but it has been withheld for fear of jeopardizing his wife and child in Iraq. Still shaking with fear and anxiety, he was interviewed just an hour after his capture.
"We've been in the trenches for weeks and weeks, and we've had no leave to see our families," he said, his hands trembling as he accepted a glass of sweet tea from his captors. "All the soldiers complain, but only among ourselves. We are starving. We're being tortured."
The man's brigade is deployed in defensive positions just east of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city. He said they were well-equipped with mortars, heavy artillery, anti-aircraft weapons and a good stock of Russian-made night-vision binoculars and sniper scopes.
But the defector did not think the Iraqi troops would put up much of a fight if attacked. Most would like to "escape," as he called it, but they were constantly watched by special units called "execution battalions" that are empowered to shoot defectors on the spot.
Only a handful of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered so far in the northern theater, and some apparent defectors have been exposed as frauds. But Kurdish military intelligence officials and those familiar with the practices and terminology of the Iraqi military confirmed Tuesday night that this man was an Iraqi infantryman.
Drenched from heavy rain, he arrived at a Kurdish checkpoint Tuesday night carrying nothing except his monthly salary. He had a wad of banknotes bearing Saddam's image.
"This man Saddam is nothing, no good," the man said, then stopped short. He whispered to a Kurdish guerrilla fighter that he was afraid that Saddam would somehow learn of his comment and have him killed.
Kurdish intelligence officials said some of the claims the man made probably were exaggerations. For example, he claimed that his unit had taken delivery in the last few days of "chemical-weapon warheads" that are meant to be fired from mortars. But he couldn't describe the warheads, how they worked or what they might contain.
The Kurdish officials think Iraqi commanders told the front line troops they had chemical weapons in their arsenal to give them a sense of importance and boost their morale.
That morale has been badly shaken by nightly bombings in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. A cruise missile landed right next to his position Monday night, the defector said, but it had not exploded. He was so terrified that he pushed himself facedown into the cold muck of his trench.
The Iraqi infantrymen have been prohibited from having radios, and the defector had no idea how the war was proceeding. His wife is living in Basra with their 5-year-old daughter, Dumoo. Her name in Arabic means "tears."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-DEFECTOR