NEAR AN NAJAF, Iraq—As a U.S. Army Humvee made its way down a sandy route several miles south of here Sunday morning, seven Iraqis in dusty robes, trousers and sandals appeared on the side of the road.
Army Command Sergeant Major D. Woods jumped out of the vehicle, pointed his M9 pistol at the seven men and motioned them to get down. Prone with their hands locked behind their heads, the men allowed Woods to search them.
They had no weapons but carried military papers. Woods radioed the 101st Airborne to take them to a nearby POW holding camp.
Throughout the day, the same story repeated itself time and again. Over the weekend, the number of POWs at the camp increased from 100 to about 1,000 as desertions by scared and hungry Iraqis contributed to the attrition of Saddam Hussein's forces.
But the increased number of desertions also has made soldiers more alert, amid reports of ambushes by Iraqi fighters pretending to surrender.
"We are suddenly seeing a drastic escalation in Iraqi soldiers and conscripted men turning themselves in," said Capt. John Wilson of U.S. Army intelligence.
In fact, all day Sunday, the radios at Rams, a huge Army combat support base near An Najaf, broadcast incidents of Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary men asking U.S. troops to take them into custody.
An English-speaking Iraqi farmer, whom Woods knew, met him on the road and translated for the seven men:
"They say they are soldiers from different units," said the wheat farmer. "They do not want to fight and say they will be shot if they don't. They are asking for protection. They are very thirsty and hungry."
Woods' driver got a stack of vegetarian MREs (meals ready to eat) and seven 1.5 liter bottles of water out of the back of the Humvee and passed them out.
The Iraqis, in their 20s and 30s, gulped down the water and tore into the MRES, eating crackers, dry flat bread and cold, processed pasta and rice with their hands.
They were exceptionally docile—afraid to look up and quick to flatten out on the ground. Woods told the translator to tell them they wouldn't be hurt and to relax.
"I couldn't get over how accommodating and passive they were," he said later.
By noon, the POWs were in the back of a 101st Airborne truck, en route to a holding camp, an hour south of An Najaf.
With the increase in desertions comes a higher sense of wariness. Four U.S. soldiers were killed Friday when approached by Iraqis whom they thought were turning themselves in.
"It's up to each soldier to judge the situation and I pray they judge it correctly," Wilson said. "We don't want to kill Iraqis who are trying to escape but we don't want our soldiers killed either I worry a lot that mistakes will happen."
Saturday, soldiers traveling on the main Army supply routes into central Iraq were radioed a list of warnings from Army intelligence:
_Do not raise your heads above the machine guns mounted on your vehicles. Paramilitary Iraqis have stretched steel cables across the road to decapitate you.
_Do not travel without a security force carrying grenades and shoulder-launched rockets. The combat supply troops en route to central Iraq are the focus of the Iraqi military.
_Do not stop near the cities of Nasariah and Samawah, which you drive close to. They are not secure and dangerous.
_Do not stay with wrecked or broken down vehicles. Leave them on the road.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.