© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003
WASHINGTON -- An entire division of 8,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to coalition forces in southern Iraq on Friday, another sign that Saddam Hussein's military is crumbling.
The 51st Infantry Division's commander and his troops formally surrendered as 85,000 U.S. and British Marines advanced toward Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
"Their officers have cut and run," a Marine intelligence officer said, adding that many of the Iraqi officers appeared to have fled to Basra.
Meanwhile, the United States has been in direct negotiations with generals in Hussein's elite Republican Guard this week, trying to persuade them to surrender and allow U.S. troops to enter Baghdad, U.S. officials disclosed Friday.
The surrender of the 51st Division spares the U.S. 1st Marine Division from having to fight to take its major objective, and leaves the region under U.S. and allied control.
The Americans had been attacking the Iraqi positions there with 70 Harrier ground attack planes and 50 F/A-18 Hornet fighter bombers in preparation for moving against them on the ground.
Losing the 51st Division is a blow to Hussein because it was one of the better equipped and trained in Iraq's regular army forces.
The soldiers were also protecting Basra, a transportation and oil shipment hub on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf. The division had about 200 tanks before the war and about 10,000 soldiers at its peak.
The division also was important to Hussein's government for keeping Shiite Muslims -- the majority in southern Iraq -- from rebelling against Hussein's largely Sunni government.
The division was the largest single unit to surrender Friday, but hordes of other troops gave up, too. In some cases, Iraqi soldiers waved white flags or raised their hands in an attempt to surrender to a group of journalists traveling with the U.S. military. As they advanced, U.S. forces found Iraqi tanks and other weapons abandoned in the desert.
What U.S. officials really want is a white flag from Hussein's Republican Guard, a formidable group of 60,000 soldiers. Talks with the guard's commanders came close to producing a deal Thursday, said one official with direct knowledge of the covert effort. But the negotiations failed.
Those who did surrender were, for the most part, a rag-tag army, many of them draftees, often in T-shirts and carrying worn Kalashnikov rifles.
"I kind of felt sorry for them," said one U.S. military official in southern Iraq. "A lot of them looked hungry. They haven't been fed in a while."
Their decision to give up was expected; for months, Americans have bombarded Iraq with messages, urging its soldiers to refuse to fight.
At a Pentagon news conference Friday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called upon Iraq's military to "do the honorable thing, stop fighting that you may live to enjoy a free Iraq, where you and your children can grow and prosper."
U.S. military officials couldn't provide a total number of Iraqi soldiers who surrendered. Rumsfeld said he knew of a few hundred, and others who just quit fighting. "A lot of people just leave and melt into the countryside," he said.
Within a few hours of crossing into southern Iraq, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender. One group of 40 Iraqis marched down a two-lane road toward the Americans and gave up.
Forty to 50 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Marine traffic control unit. They came down the road in the open back of a troop vehicle, their hands in the air for about a mile before they reached the Marines.
Iraqis who are taken into custody will be quickly handed over to military police specially trained in handling prisoners of war. Medical care will be administered and the prisoners searched.
The officers will be sorted from the enlisted men and the groups will be moved to confinement areas, all under the eye of the International Red Cross.
Many of the surrendering soldiers will be confined to their barracks. Detainees deemed to be a potential threat to coalition forces will be taken to central holding locations in the region.
Once the war is over, the prisoners will be repatriated, unlike the al-Qaida suspects being held at the U.S. facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The difference, military officials said, is that the Iraqis meet four conditions qualifying them as prisoners of war under the 1949 Geneva Convention governing the treatment of captives.
The conditions are that they must be part of a command structure, must wear military uniforms, must openly carry their weapons, and must "conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the laws of war," said Army Maj. Ted Wadsworth, a Pentagon spokesman.
Military officials have said they plan to employ Iraqi armed forces after the war to help rebuild the country.
-- Information from the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Scripps Howard News Service and Knight Ridder was used in this report.