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U.S. Army planning for the care of thousands of Iraqi POWs

CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait—Army planners have stuffed their supply pipeline to care for thousands of surrendering Iraqis and military police have drilled ground troops how to take custody of them.

"Kef, kef, kef. That means halt," Sgt. 1st Class Robert Webster of Chugiaka, Alaska, told soldiers at this Army camp 35 miles south of the Iraqi border. "If they run, tell them to halt three times. Then what do you do?"

"Shoot `em" a private yelled.

Not necessarily, Webster replied. Instead, he taught the troops that they must try to balance their own safety with the rights of a poorly disciplined and beaten enemy. For instance, if an Iraqi soldier runs off into the desert where he's unlikely to endanger U.S. troops, Webster said it might be best to let him go.

In the first Gulf War, Webster was in a squad of six that seized 109 Iraqis. Approach the Iraqi soldiers sternly and resolutely, he advised, saying that a helmet butt or a knee to the crotch might be needed to discipline individuals in a group. But, he added, "You need to treat them humanely."

"You can't trust them, can you?" asked Sgt. William James of San Antonio, Texas. "They mix in Republican Guard guys with the regular troops just to mix us up. Then they'll make a move later. Right?"

An MP officer, Capt. Mike Johns, responded: "The bottom line is you just want to get all your own boys home safe. Make sure you get all their weapons."

The Army is already moving provisions and supplies into Kuwait for use at prison camps that will be built in Iraq if the war happens. Like many things in the military, the numbers involved in such preparations are huge. For just one center designed to hold prisoners for a few days, military police ordered six public address systems, 8,200 cots and blankets, scores of tents and latrines, 32 cases of Lysol cleaning fluid and 24 miles of concertina wire.

"We're thinking very few will be hostile, that they'll be like last time," said Capt. Kevin Hanrahan of Whitman, Mass. "Maybe as we move farther north and get closer to (Saddam Hussein), they may be more loyal to him and hostile to us. But we don't really know."

The Geneva Convention requires that prisoners be treated humanely and protected "against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."

The military has already demanded that journalists traveling with American troops sign agreements not to use photographs or stories that would identify individual prisoners. Under that rationale, captured Taliban fighter and American citizen John Walker Lindh was kept out of sight while held in Afghanistan in late 2001.

The military police said the prison camps planned in Iraq will be built, as the convention requires, "in an area far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger."

Life in captivity will begin strictly for Iraqi soldiers and gradually become easier. When U.S. troops capture prisoners, they are trained to strip them of weapons and valuables that might make them targets of thieves in custody. The materials are to be cataloged along with information about where, when and under what circumstances the Iraqis were captured.

Initially, prisoners are to be taken to pens with berms built around them and circled by a single coil of concertina wire. A small hole is to be dug in a corner as a makeshift toilet.

The prisoners will later move to a temporary holding area inside a higher berm topped by three rows of razor wire. There, they'll be given blankets, showers, proper latrines, tents and toilet paper. After a few days, they'll be taken to a permanent camp with buildings suited for longer stays.

For the most part, said Capt. Jeff Searl of Muwonag, Wis., prisoners will eat what U.S. soldiers do. That could mean meals-ready-to-eat, the vacuum-sealed food packs that often include some form of pork, which observant Muslims aren't supposed to eat.

"We found in the Gulf War they ate them anyway," Searl said. "They were glad to have the ham slices."


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-POW