NEAR LAFIYAH, Iraq—While many Baghdad residents celebrated their liberation Wednesday, 147 Iraqi prisoners lined up with their heads hung low, endured friskings and boarded creaky buses for questioning at a coalition camp five hours south.
Some were civilians nabbed by troops who considered any able-bodied man suspicious. Many had fought the invaders and lost, but survived the encounter. A few were fedayeen, Saddam Hussein's chosen paramilitary thugs.
Whatever their stories, the wounded winced constantly on the bouncing ride. All were subdued, bold enough only to beg for cigarettes or water.
Most of the enlistees wore tattered clothes and worn plastic sandals. The officers mostly wore uniforms not yet threadbare. Several had bellies hanging over their belts.
"The closer you get to Baghdad, the fatter they are," said Lt. Yianni Hermann, 28, of Garnett, Kan. "They're better fed than the others."
The point of the questioning—which reporters aren't allowed to listen in on, or to name quizzed prisoners—is to identify especially important prisoners, gain insight into Saddam's tactics and learn more about hidden weaponry.
The prize appeared to be a Republican Guard major who said he'd commanded a missile battery and who chattered away about Scud missiles and chemical warheads. He had high blood pressure, he later explained, according to the translator who participated in his questioning, and said he longed to join siblings in Sweden.
Other prisoners said they'd stumbled into checkpoints or succumbed to Saddam's strong-arm rule. A Syrian said he was a mercenary.
The major told interrogators he'd fired short-range missiles at Saddam International Airport after Americans seized control there, said Farel Sabah, a Kuwaiti translator at the camp near Najaf. Sabah said the major also told interrogators that Scud missiles fired at Kuwait came from the Basra area—a serious miscue, since no Scuds have been fired in this war.
This made less interesting the major's story that Iraqi commanders had hidden scores of tanks in Baghdad's residential sections and planned to escape to Tikrit, the northern city Saddam calls home, by truck.
Sabah said the major cooperated because he felt abused by the Iraqi system and hoped the invaders would help him join a brother and sister who he said were doing well in Sweden.
The major, according to the translator, wept when asked to consider the future of his country.
Three admitted members of the feared fedayeen militia said they took up Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades because recruiters promised them each 100,000 Iraqi dinars—about $35—plus a house and a car.
The detained Syrian got a nasty reception. His interrogator bent over, put his mouth within an inch of the seated man's ear and shouted: "So you think you're f---ing tough!"
The Syrian, 22, said he'd come to Iraq after the war began because he thought Americans intended to kill Arabs and rape women. He added that he was to be paid 65,000 dinar and a house and a car, the translator said.
The prisoners reached camp at midafternoon and were herded into concertina-wire pens. The questioning went on through the night.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.