The 19-year-old Iraqi war prisoner shook and cried as he was led into a US medical tent at a dusty camp. But it wasn't because he had a gunshot wound in his right leg.
"He thought we were going to execute him," says Sgt. Mark McLaurin of the 3rd Infantry Division's 566th Medical Support Company. By the next day, the boy was saying, "Thanks," and calling Sergeant McLaurin "Doc."
The young prisoner, like many captured Iraqis here, said he had been forced to fight by Saddam Hussein loyalists who made death threats against his family.
The teen's story illustrates the fear that grips many Iraqis - and how the desperate choices they make are shaping the course of the war. His experience lies at the core of one of the central mysteries of the two-week-old conflict: Have the Iraqis been fighting so diligently in the south because they've been coerced or because they're defending their homeland against an outside aggressor?
While many clearly have fought because they resent the US and British presence, others have taken up arms out of fear of retribution from internal forces.
Of the more than 700 Iraqi prisoners handled by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division so far, about three-fourths are soldiers and the rest civilians. Interrogations have indicated that the majority does not support the Iraqi leadership, US officers say. "Frankly, I'd say about 50 to 75 percent of these guys are afraid of the regime and glad to be in our care at this point," says Csm. Chuck Medley of the 3rd Military Police Battalion, which guards the camp.
Teenaged boys trembling with fear, 70-year-old farmers run off their land, college students abducted from their dormitories - all driven to the front lines and handed a weapon - have recently passed through this temporary camp.
"You put them in the middle of combat, with the Americans on one side and the Baath Party on the other, so they take a gamble with their life," says Mike, a former Iraqi Army officer working as a US military linguist. "They think, 'Maybe there is a 50 percent chance I will be a war prisoner with the US, but if I go back to the Baath Party, it's 100 percent sure I will die,' " says Mike, who withheld his full name.
Fear of Baath Party reprisals - and a deep skepticism of Washington's staying power due to the abrupt withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 1991 - explains, in part, why the number of Iraqis surrendering has been far lower than expected, US officers say.
"We thought we would have anything from 10,000 to 16,000 [prisoners]," says Capt. Mark Germano, who handles operations for the 3rd Military Police Battalion. Some officers say they expect the number of prisoners to increase "dramatically" as US forces advance north.
Not all Iraqi prisoners were motivated to fight by fear. In interrogations here, a number of relatively senior officers and hard-core Hussein backers have openly voiced their opposition to the US-led military campaign. "They say, 'The US invaded our country, and so we are going to fight,' " says Mike, who recently questioned an Iraqi colonel and two lieutenant colonels.
These staunch Hussein supporters are considered highly dangerous to US troops. "We have some Iraqi soldiers who would kill you in a heartbeat if they got the chance. So we have to be constantly on guard," says Sergeant Major Medley.
A few prisoners have tried to stir unrest in the POW camps, by shouting, stealing, causing scuffles, and, in one case, staging a brief hunger strike. "They get belligerent and try to start fights inside the wire," says Medley. Such prisoners are handcuffed with plastic zip ties called "flexcuffs" and held in isolation until they cooperate. So far, however, none have attempted to escape.
Although the vast majority of prisoners - up to 80 percent - arrive wearing civilian clothes, US interrogators say they can usually distinguish Iraqi civilians, ordinary soldiers, and officers by the quality of their health, clothing, and grooming. "The soldiers are better fed and groomed than the ragtag guys they take off the street and order to fight," says Medley. Military intelligence officers, Special Forces teams, and military criminal investigators seeking evidence of war crimes are all involved in questioning the Iraqis, who are believed to have potentially valuable information.
Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Roof of the 30th Criminal Investigations Division says he has turned up little so far. While the prisoners he has interviewed are largely opposed to the regime and willing to cooperate, their knowledge is limited. "They know very little, just pieces of rumor, but as trained federal agents, we have to turn over every stone," he says. "No one [we've talked to] is close to being a war criminal. They are not in the inner circle."
Indeed, despite a daily inflow of scores of Iraqi soldiers and civilian fighters, life appears uneventful at this open-air holding pen of concertina wire known as "the cage." Military police in four Humvees mounted with machine guns stand constant watch over the prisoners, who squat in the unshaded dirt pens.
The prisoners are searched once a day, and given a daily bottle of water and a ready-to-eat meal (MRE) in addition to medical care as needed. Members of a US surgical team recently arrived and planned to erect a shelter for recovering patients. "If we lose one of them to dehydration, we've screwed up," says an officer from the 934th forward surgical team, a reserve unit from Salt Lake City, Utah.
The prisoners here are allowed to supplement their MREs with rice and other staples found in a dilapidated building near the camp. One recent afternoon, two Iraqi prisoners, their traditional checked head scarves wrapped up like turbans, stirred a cauldron of rice boiling over a propane stove. A US soldier then took the steaming dish of rice, tomato paste, and dates, and distributed it to the more than 80 inmates.
From here, the prisoners are handcuffed and sometimes hooded before being transported by a five-ton truck or helicopter to a large detention center in southern Iraq. There, they are processed, and some civilians are likely to be freed, officers say.
Apparently, some Iraqi civilians are rushing to surrender to American troops under the false impression that they will be taken to the United States.
"We had a group like that a few days ago," says Medley. "One guy wanted to go to America, bad. He wasn't a soldier. He wanted a baseball cap. When we put him on a helicopter, he thought he was going to America - he was smiling the whole time."