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Iraq Journals

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Monday, March 31

Captured Iraqis are mix of military, conscripts

By John Bebow | The Detroit News

ENEMY PRISONER OF WAR TEAM WEST, Central Iraq - The short march began at first light Monday. More than 100 Iraqi prisoners of war moved one by one from a sparse lot ringed with barbed wire to the back of seven-ton Marine trucks.

U.S. invasion forces have captured about 8,000 POWs in this 11-day war. Fighting grunts gather them from trenches, buildings and roadsides and ship them to collection points like this one just behind the front lines.

"They look like a bunch of country men taken from their homes to fight," said Warrant Officer Mike Niezgoda, 33, from Buffalo, N.Y., commander of a team of Marine military police who handle prisoners at Team West.

Monday's shipment was their largest yet. The Marines put gray hoods over the Iraqis' heads, cuffed the prisoners' hands behind their backs with plastic packing strips, clasped numbered identification tags to their shirts and led them to the trucks.

There was nothing uniform about the Iraqis' uniforms, except their new olive-green blankets, stamped "U.S." One wore Nike sweat pants, the next a long robe. Many were barefoot. Another scuffed along with a black tennis shoe on his left foot and nothing on his right.

They hardly looked like a fighting force, "but looks can be deceiving," said Navy corpsman Billy Fitzsimmons, 24, from rural Missouri.

Fitzsimmons helped in the convoy that would take the prisoners some 150 miles south to a major prisoner holding area where they would receive physical examinations and hot meals of rice and beans.

Down there, the bags come off the Iraqis' heads. When he performs the physical exams, Fitzsimmons said he finds malnutrition, skin infections and vacant eyes expressing neither gratitude nor hatred.

"They're just confused," he said.

Some were forced to kneel while trucks were prepared. Hands trembled.

"LAN-TU-AZA," one Marine guard comforted in Arabic. "You will not be harmed."

Marine commanders took steps to limit the number of POWs even before this war started. They dropped leaflets in Iraq warning soldiers to drop weapons and go home, or arrange vehicles in positions that would signal surrender to U.S. troops.

The idea was to create a kind of battlefield respect like that at the end of the U.S. Civil War, when General Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops were allowed to lay down arms and return home to plant their fields.

In interpreted conversations with more than 100 other POWs who have flowed through Team West in recent days, guards have pieced together a picture of conscripts with little education and little choice but to fight.

"Most of them don't have any more than about a fourth-grade education," Niezgoda said. "Some of them can't even read or write in Arabic. Many of them say they have been pulled from their homes and forced to fight. They have been threatened with execution or torture to their families if they deserted or surrendered."

The highest-ranking Iraqi to come through this camp so far was a brigadier general. He, too, was ordered to fight, pulled out of retirement, Niezgoda said. The general commanded a roadside ambush that injured several Marines but left almost half of his 60 troops dead last Tuesday.

"His tactics were good," Niezgoda said. "He used the landscape well. But he had no chance."