We were not really mad at the Americans. We just want to save our lives
Iraqi deserter tells of desperation across the line
Mar. 31, 2003 12:25 PM
KALAK, Iraq - 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 sweater.
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 on."
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 dinner.
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 without him."
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 party.
"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 our chances."
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 waited.
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 cigarette burns.
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 POWs.
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.