Iraqi POWs rejoice over end of captivity

USA TODAY
May 7, 2003, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION
BYLINE: Sal Ruibal
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 6A
LENGTH: 505 words
DATELINE: UMM QASR, Iraq

UMM QASR, Iraq — Mohammad Mohsin made a special hat for his going- away party. After nearly six weeks as a prisoner of war, the former Iraqi soldier was about to board a bus bound for his home in Nasiriyah.

Mohsin was among 200 Iraqi POWs released Tuesday from the Camp Bucca detention facility in southern Iraq. He carried onto the bus a new blanket, a pair of blue plastic sandals, a packaged meal, five cigarettes and five U.S. dollars. But his most prized possession was the wide-brimmed hat he fashioned from a cardboard carton.

“This represents my pride,” he said through an interpreter. “I did not let myself become sad.”

More than 6,700 prisoners of war — both civilian and military — have been released from the sprawling compound during the past two weeks. The facility is named for Ronald Bucca, a New York City fire marshal who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

An additional 600 prisoners will be released over the next five days, leaving about 800 to 1,000 “hard-core” prisoners. Those who remain are deemed by U.S. and British military intelligence officers to be Baath Party members, senior military officers, possible war criminals or sources of valuable information, said Maj. Stacy Garrity of the 800th Military Police Brigade.

About 40% of the total prisoners were civilians who were detained at checkpoints during the fighting, according to Col. Alan Ecke of the 800th MPs. “Once they were vetted by military intelligence and the Criminal Investigation Division, we . . . released civilians on a first in, first out basis,” he said.

Although an end to the war has not been declared, the end of hostilities allows for parole and early repatriation.

In Baghdad on Tuesday, Red Cross officials criticized U.S. and British military officials for keeping them from monitoring many high-level detainees. But at the camp, Red Cross worker Nicole Esselen said, “Considering the situation, the camp is adequate.”

That feeling was echoed by many of the departing POWs, who were allowed to speak to reporters after being released.

“They treated us well,” said Ahmed Saleh Ahmed, who sat in 112-degree temperatures for two hours before boarding a bus for a 12-hour ride to his home in Mosul. “Now I will go back to my life. I missed my wife very much.”

Mohammad El-Biati, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Iraqi army, stood ramrod straight in a dark suit jacket, beige trousers and black loafers as he prepared to leave. His appearance was a contrast to the blue jumpsuits and tattered camouflage fatigues worn by lesser-ranking POWs.

“Everyone in the prison was very good,” El-Biati said. “There were no problems. I’m ready to start my new life in a new Iraq.

When the time came for hatmaker Mohsin to board the bus to Nasiriyah, he waved to the military police who had been his captors. “I am happy,” he said as he climbed the bus steps. “I am going home. I am going home.”