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From the archives: The Iraqi POW phenomenon

Iraqi soldiers surrender to American forces from Iron Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, in February, 1991.

STAFF SGT. MARK Haas was trying to get rid of a truckload of Iraqi prisoners. Somebody told him to take them to Iron Troop, in the 2nd Armd Cav Regt. He went there, had the enemy soldiers climb down from the back of his truck and marched them toward the cavalry troop's headquarters.

No, said someone in Iron Troop. The outfit was getting ready to move forward and couldn't be burdened.

So Haas marched his prisoners back to the truck, had them climb back on and started looking for somewhere else to take them.

''I'm a long way from my trombone," Haas said, sounding both irritated and amused. In more ordinary days the 28-year-old sergeant, from Franklin Lakes, N J., plays in the brass section of the 1st Inf Div band, out of Fort Riley, Kan. In the back of the truck, among the prisoners, there was even a tuba.

Everyone, it seemed, had Iraqi prisoners of war.

The 2nd Armd Cav Regt. based in Nurnberg, Germany, ended up taking more than 2,000 enemy prisoners during the 100-hour ground war, roughly one Iraqi for every two Americans in the front-line unit. The total of surrendering Iraqis was fast approaching 200,000 when the newscasts either lost interest or lost track of the count.

The regiment's Iron Troop, out of Amberg, Germany, had already caught most of its prisoners in Iraq two days before Haas' truckload showed up. Pfc Michael O'Donnell recalled driving over a ridge and discovering dozens of soldiers from the Iraqi 26th Inf Div on the other side, shoveling trenches.

"They were digging in, and they thought we were their reinforcements and kept right on digging," said O'Donnell, 22, a cavalry scout from Long Island, N.Y. "I don't think we even took small arms fire."

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However, there was a brief fight in which at least one Iraqi died. Then suddenly it was all finished, and almost 200 enemy soldiers gave themselves up to Iron Troop.

"They (commanders) wanted us to pull back and dump artillery on 'em," said 1st Lt Paul Calvert, the executive officer for Iron Troop. "But I wasn't about to, with as many white flags as I saw."

Calvert said that as soon as the American scouts popped over the ridge they began firing, and the tanks came forward also shooting.

"That's when we saw some people coming out of bunkers." said Calvert, 27, from Athens, Ga. "From that point it was just trying our damnedest not to shoot any people who were surrendering."

The dirty, unfed Iraqis said they'd been in the desert alone for 46 days after one of the supposedly elite Republican Guard divisions had abandoned them and moved further back. One prisoner said they'd been drinking nothing but salty water for weeks. A second Iraqi said he had a brother who was still a prisoner of war in Iran.

"You saved us," another Iraqi told one of his American captors. About half a dozen of the enemy were wounded, and U.S. medics treated them. One man, with shrapnel in his legs and broken ribs, kept kissing his fingers, then waving them at the GIs gathered around him.

"I figured we'd get prisoners of war, but I didn't know they'd come in such a big bunch," said Spec. Del Abosso, a tank mechanic. His Australian parents were visiting Chicago when he was born, endowing him with U S citizenship but not an American accent.

"The American Army wasn't really trained for such a big bunch," said Abosso, 31. "It's almost awesome, is the best way I can put it. It's like, the Iraqis can't fight."

Although much had been made of the Iraqis' eight-year war with Iran, Abosso decided that the veterans were probably tied of fighting.

With a rifle on his hip, he stared across the rows of enemy prisoners sitting in the sand.

"I look into the eyes of these people, and I see that they're human, not monsters," the mechanic said. "They look at us and probably see the same thing. I see that they're tired of war. I look at these people, and they took relieved."

Abosso said he had a perfect name for the war he was fighting: "The New Order War, because this is the first time I know that the United Nations actually did something that worked. Because before, it was almost like a debating team."

The war, he mused, might even lead to a "United States of the World."

"I see something big gonna happen out of this war," he said. "People are gonna see that it worked. I think the whole world's tired of people cutting loose, raising all hell in this spot or that spot. It's going to be a new, peaceful world. Soon."

Abosso was in the Australian army years ago and said he fought against guerrilla troops in the Philippines in 1979. One of the reasons he crossed over into the American Army was for the pay. As an Australian sergeant, he'd been making $300 a month, When he became a U.S. private, he more than doubled his income.

"I call the world me home, because I been all over," Abosso said. "I feel at home at any place on this planet. Even here." He gestured out across the Iraqi wasteland. "As long as I'm on this planet, I'm not homesick. I mean, the gravity feels the same. The air feels the same."

Then he sniffled. "The worst part of war," he said, "is getting a cold during it."
 

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