NEAR AN NAJAF, Iraq—Friday, my driver and I were on our way back from talking to the mechanics who repair the Army attack helicopters—mostly Alpha and Delta Apaches and Black Hawks that get shot up by Iraqi AK-47s—when our Humvee came to a dead stop on the road, about 10 miles south of An Najaf.
A Chinook helicopter was blocking our passage, waiting for about 60 people. They were crouched in the sand on the side of the road in groups of 20—mostly teen-age boys about 18. They looked scared to death.
They were Iraqi POWs.
Because Iraqi soldiers dressed as civilians are attacking U.S. supply routes, the Army has started stopping all Iraqi males and searching them and their vehicles. If they have a gun, they are detained. If they have a map and a cell phone, they are detained. If they are wearing black combat boots, they are detained as well.
The U.S. soldiers take them to a temporary holding pen in the desert, which is where we saw them. From there, they fly them to a POW camp in Kuwait.
MPs, with fingers on the triggers of their M-16s, stood around the teens. A special forces officer stood in front of each cluster, calling each prisoner to the front, one by one.
Most of the prisoners wore traditional black robes or dark shirts and pants. They were so dusty everything looked gray. Only a few of them had beards. Most of them had short, black curly hair.
When called, they stood up and walked to the front of their group, but a few crawled. One boy went on his knees, his hands raised up, as if he were praying.
Once up to the front of the line, their hands were tied at their waists with a "zip strip"—a strip of white plastic. Not one of them resisted.
SFC Stephen Furbish, an Army intelligence analyst, told me later in the day that he had talked to some Iraqi prisoners a few days before. Most said they were forced to fight, Furbish said. They weren't even in the military, but soldiers came to their homes and ordered them out on the roads around Al Najaf to either get information or to shoot at passing Army vehicles.
A few said they were told to go up to U.S. soldiers and beg for food so they could get a good look at their weapons and vehicles and report back. The result of these confessions was an Army decision to detain all Iraqi males around An Najaf who approached U.S. soldiers and expressed hunger.
"We are not winning civilian friends with this policy, but it has to be," said Furbish, a 30-year Army veteran from Gorham, Maine.
Tom Grubbs, a retired major from Virginia who helped process POWs during Desert Storm 12 years ago, told me a month ago that there was so little food in Iraq during that war that Iraqis would claim to be part of the military just to go to POW camps so they could get fed.
"But this time is different," Furbish said. "These kids really were cannon fodder for the Iraqi military."
After getting their hands tied, each boy returned to his cluster and crouched back down in the sand. Most kept their heads down but a few looked up at the huge Chinook as the propellers started to rotate.
After a few minutes, the MPs prodded them with their rifles to stand up and walk toward the helicopter.
The boys did. They marched toward the open door in a straight line. Like good soldiers.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):
A photo of Meg Laughlin is available in the Columnist Mugs download area of KRT Direct.