DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA — SOME were fished from their sunken boats, shivering helplessly with cold and exhaustion; others have given up only after a fierce fight; others still have slipped away from their positions at first light, waving a white tee shirt in surrender. As the Gulf war continues, the number of Iraqi prisoners of war is mounting. Although accurate figures are impossible to come by, around 1,000 are currently being held, but there are signs that American units are not always handing their prisoners on as quickly as they are meant to.
By Feb. 5, United States forces had passed only 90 ``enemy prisoners of war,'' known as EPW's, to the Saudi authorities, who as host nation are responsible for all prisoners. US troops have documented a further 103 EPW's in their two ``theater camps'' built to hold prisoners, according to Lt. Col. Virginia Pribyla, while forward units are holding an unknown number of men.
Asked about the apparent delay in passing the EPW's into Saudi hands, a US military spokeswoman, Maj. Linda Leong, said the time EPW's spent in US custody ``varies according to where they are captured ... our charter is to turn them over to the Saudi government as soon as possible. Whether it's one day or three days or more depends on the circumstances.''
US forces are believed to be holding their Iraqi prisoners longer, however, in order to extract intelligence information from them before moving them to the rear.
Estimates of the number of EPWs who will be taken once the coalition forces launch their ground assault vary wildly. US military police are building two permanent EPW camps, according to the military spokeswoman who would not disclose their size or location. The British forces say they are constructing a camp capable of handling more than 12,000 prisoners a week. Both armies say they will build temporary ``cages'' in forward positions, where prisoners will be held for initial processing and interrogation.
The Saudis, who are ultimately responsible for the EPW's, refuse to say what provision they have made for this task.
When they retook the border town of Khafji last week, Saudi troops took 429 EPW's, according to Army spokesman Col. Ahmad al-Robayan, who promised that ``they will be decently taken care of, and be well fed and sheltered. They will be treated as persons we wish to have as future friends when the war is over.''
The Saudis will offer special treatment to Iraqi deserters, the colonel said. ``We consider defectors military refugees and we will give them excellent treatment,'' he said.
Neither US nor British security, however, distinguishes between deserters and those captured in battle. ``They'll be treated the same until they are eventually shuffled through to the Saudis,'' says British spokesman Squadron Leader Phillip Bradshaw.
All Iraqi soldiers who fall into coalition hands are a useful source of information, and although under the Geneva Convention they are obliged to give only their name, rank, serial number, and date of birth, many are responding to interrogation, according to US spokesmen.
On the USS Curts over the weekend, for example, captured Iraqi sailors told their interrogators that their commanders had ordered them to sail their boats to refuge in Iran.
``EPW's may be selected for questioning depending on their status and circumstances,'' says Squadron Leader Bradshaw. They could remain in British hands for as long as a week before being channeled through US camps to Saudi custody, he added.
Meanwhile, front-line US troops have told reporters that far more deserters are coming across Iraqi lines than official military spokesmen have acknowledged. This has sparked suspicions that units are holding such deserters for as much quiet interrogation as possible before informing their headquarters of their EPW's.