KALAK, Iraq March 31 —
The soldier covered his face and wept.
It was a deep, sudden sobbing he couldn't control. His shoulders
heaved. Tears wet the frayed cuffs of his green Iraqi army
He cried because he was alive. He cried because his family may
think he's dead. He cried for his country. He cried because for him
the war was over.
"I'm so sorry. Excuse me. I just can't stop," wept the soldier
who fled Saddam Hussein's army and was taken Monday into the hands
of U.S.-allied Iraqi Kurdish fighters. "Could this terrible time be
over soon? Please, tell me."
The soldier part of a front-line unit was among at least 18 Iraqi
deserters who staggered into the Kurdish town of Kalak as U.S.
warplanes stepped up airstrikes on Iraqi positions near the Kurds'
autonomous region. He agreed to share his story, but with
conditions: no details about him or his military service could be
revealed. Call him Ali.
He feared Saddam loyalists could retaliate against his family.
They may have already, he said.
"The army knows I ran away. They could come and take revenge," he
said in the central police barracks in Kalak, about 20 miles
northwest of the Kurdish administrative center Irbil. "My only hope
is that I'm not alone. There are so many deserters and those who
want to run. They cannot attack all these families with a war going
War for this foot soldier was one of desperation. "We only prayed
we'd stay alive long enough to get a chance to escape," Ali said
through an interpreter.
His unit about 30 men slept in muddy burrows on a hillside, he
said. Breakfast was tea and crusty bread. At midday: rice and a
single cucumber to share between two soldiers. There was no
His commanders described the war as an American grab for Iraqi
oil. He couldn't contradict them there were no radios or chances to
call home. Occasionally they would receive copies of the Iraqi
military newspaper. One issue featured a poem with the lines: "The
enemy will tire, and Saddam will remain."
"We knew nothing. We were told only that America was trying to
take over Iraq," Ali said. "But we are not so stupid. We know how
Saddam rules the country. We know in our hearts we'd be better off
Ali was drafted just after the 1991 Gulf War. He remained in the
military because his family depended on the small military pay.
Anyway, there were few choices for ex-soldiers whose formal
education ended in the fourth grade. There were no jobs at home. Ali
claimed he would never seek the favors of Saddam's ruling Baath
"I don't see Saddam as a hero anymore," Ali said.
U.S. bombs killed at least five members of his unit. About the
same number were wounded, he said. "There is no medical help," he
added. "They are left to die."
"The spirit of the soldiers is very low," he said. "We were not
really mad at the Americans. We just want to save our lives."
He and four other soldiers decided to run. But they had to pick
their moment. Their unit and most others include Baathist agents
given orders to execute any deserters, he said.
"But we decided it was either die from an American bomb or be
killed by our own people," he said. "It was better to run and take
On Wednesday evening, in a torrential rainstorm, they made their
break. They raced over the treeless pastures into Kurdish territory.
The next morning, they asked a goat herder to direct them to Kalak.
Then they panicked.
"We thought he would hand us over to the Iraqi army for some
reward," Ali said.
They arrived at the edge of Kalak on Friday. They could see the
Iraqi positions on the ridge just across the Great Zab River,
running high and dirt brown after the downpours. And they
They worried Kurdish militiamen would open fire if they simply
walked into town. Until dawn Monday, they survived on wild greens
and weighed their choices. They finally decided to fashion a
surrender flag from an undershirt.
A half hour later, they were gulping hot tea and smoking
cigarettes. Kurdish officials hunted for new clothes. Ali still wore
what passed for a uniform: green camouflage pants, boots, a military
sweater, a wool turban and a ragged nylon jacket dotted with
Kurdish authorities decline to say precisely how many Iraqi
military deserters have crossed over. Modest estimates range from
several hundred to nearly 500. But they clearly expect more. Kurds
plan a camp for at least 6,000 deserters and possible Iraqi
Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party whose
territory includes Kalak, said "no comment" when asked if U.S.
officials in the Kurdish zone would question deserters.
"I can say now what I always felt: Saddam led to this war," Ali
said. "We don't want to fight America. We don't want to fight for
Saddam. We just want an end to all this."
A top Kurdish official, Hoshiar Zebari, predicted a collision
course for two powerful forces in Iraq: the ordinary troops and the
defenders of the regime.
"It's highly possible there could be confrontations between the
regular army and the paramilitary who are terrorizing the people,"
Zebari told reporters.
Ali agreed. No one dares to speak out against Saddam while Baath
party forces still have footholds, he said.
"The people know that any uprising against Saddam now would mean
terrible things to them and their family. They force them to chant
`Down with America,' but not everyone means it. Saddam's people are
afraid for the future."
That's when he started to cry. Moments later came the thud of a
U.S. bomb hitting the ridge just across the river.
|Kurdish men pass by a guard`s
check tower at the Kurdish-controlled town of Ibrahim Khalili
on the Turkish border about 10 kms west of Zakho. Turkey`s
Joodi mountains are in the background, northern Iraq, Monday
March 31, 2003. (AP Photo/Kamran
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