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Iraqi deserter says much of army will surrender when U.S. arrives

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—An Iraqi army deserter on Friday described Saddam Hussein's military as being rife with corruption, outfitted with inoperable equipment and populated by troops ready to surrender the instant that U.S. forces attack.

"The regular army won't fight and my friends are looking forward to the day the Americans begin the war so that they can surrender," said Ali Qadir Jadir, a veteran tank mechanic of the 34th Brigade of the 1st Mechanized Division.

Ali said none of the 128 soldiers in his unit, the Qurtuba Battalion, are willing to die for Saddam Hussein. But few will risk desertion before a U.S. invasion, preferring to surrender en mass when it begins, he said.

Kurdish officials say one or two deserters a week come over from Saddam-controlled territory.

The information Ali gave in a two-hour interview with Knight Ridder showed he had detailed knowledge of the Iraqi army practices, ranks, and tank mechanics, and knew the correct designations of army units along the frontline between Kirkuk and Mosul. There was no way to confirm his story independently.

He said he had deserted before. Saddam is known to order deserters be put to death. Ali said he had served prison terms but was saved from execution by amnesties. He said he was especially needed by the army because it did not have enough mechanics. He gave his rank as first-class assistant officer, the equivalent of a U.S. sergeant major.

The interview took place at the main security center in Sulaimaniyah, headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two parties that run the Kurdish enclave. He had turned himself in several days earlier to PUK security officials and said he expected to be released after interrogation.

Ali offered a rare look inside one of the frontline combat units that Saddam is relying on to repulse a U.S. invasion of northern Iraq.

His descriptions are corroborated by U.S. intelligence profiles of regular units of Iraq's 350,000-strong army.

Few tanks work. Officers sell spare parts, new uniforms and food. Wages and meals are meager, and surrender is frequently discussed despite ubiquitous informers, Ali said.

Commanders give daily pep talks to their troops because "they want to persuade the soldiers of how strong the Iraqi army is," he said. "They don't know that the soldiers know better about how weak the army is."

The 34th Brigade—part of the Iraqi Army's 5th Corps—is deployed in Makhmur, about halfway between the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, on the frontlines with the Vermont-size enclave in northern Iraq that Saddam relinquished to rebel Kurds in 1991.

Kirkuk and Mosul and the oilfields that they control are expected to be the prime targets of any U.S. assault in the north.

Frontline Kurdish commanders confirmed the 34th Brigade's location as Makhmur.

Ali said while regular troops would surrender, a division of Saddam's elite Republican Guard would put up a stiff defense of Kirkuk, which sits atop some of Iraq's largest proven petroleum reserves.

Senior commanders frequently declared in speeches to their troops that Kirkuk's oil wells will be blown up like Kuwait's oil fields were at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, said Ali. He said he thought it was an empty threat.

"Once one of the officers was speaking about how strongly we would have to challenge the American attack," he continued. "One of the soldiers asked him `If they are going to use their air force, what can we do with our Kalashnikovs?' The officer became angry and said `We have a big army and we can stand in the face of an attack.'"

Ali said he was using his real name in the interview. He said he had hidden his wife and two children and that he expected them to arrive in the Kurd-held enclave.

Ali and his family are Kurds and hold identity cards from Sulaimaniyah, one of the Kurdish enclave's main cities, which allows them to travel between the region and the rest of Iraq.

He said he left his unit on Jan. 28 and stayed with relatives in Kirkuk. Just over a week ago, a relative drove him to the Kurd-held town of Chamchamal, smoothing the way with bribes at Iraqi checkpoints, he said.

Ali is a short, bearded man whose smile is scarred by wounds he said he suffered in a mine explosion during the 1980-88 war with Iran.

He said he volunteered for the army in 1974. He first trained in electronics and then as a tank and motorcycle mechanic.

Ali said his unit was made up of 28 T-55 and T-62 tanks, which were built in the late 1950s and 1970s, respectively. The former Soviet Union produced those tanks, and Iraq has been unable to replace them because of a U.N. arms embargo imposed after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The aging tanks need frequent maintenance and replacement parts. Only four of them work, Ali said. Officers sell much of the unit's oil and spare parts, he said.

"When it comes to food, it's not proper or enough because the officers would steal from the soldiers' supplies," he said. "The roofs of the dugouts where we slept were leaking, and we didn't have enough transportation."

The only material the unit has in large supply, he said, is ammunition.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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