PoWs pawns in the propaganda battle
THEIR faces etched with fear and confusion, the five captured American soldiers stared at their inquisitors, showing defeat not defiance. They knew they had just become pawns in the most dangerous game of all - Saddam Hussein’s propaganda war against the coalition forces.
As the Arab television network, Al Jazeera, showed round-the-clock footage of the captured men and women, a banner headline in English and Arabic said "American Prisoners of War".
A mobile unit of engineers from the army’s 11th Air Defence Artillery Brigade 507th Maintenance Company, had been captured during an intensive firefight around the Iraqi town of al Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates River 200 miles south-east of Baghdad. It is understood the captured troops were mechanics and engineers in the region to install patriot batteries on the outskirts of the strategically vital town to counter the threat of Iraqi scud missiles.
As news of their capture filtered through to the coalition Central Command in Qatar the Iraqis were already breaching the strict terms of the Geneva Convention by parading the PoWs in front of the television cameras. The pictures, screened around the world, were condemned in London and Washington as a gross violation of the convention, which protects the rights of prisoners of war.
The display, which for Britain’s military hierarchy bore chilling echoes of the parading of a captured RAF Tornado crew during the 1991 Gulf war, came as US forces were reported to have suffered up to fifty casualties in the battle for An Nasiriyah. Other graphic television pictures, screened in Arab countries but not in Britain or the US, showed the bodies of at least six American soldiers said to have been killed in fighting around the town. Two of the bodies had bullet wounds to the head.
The footage of the captured US soldiers, repeated hourly on Al Jazeera, showed four men and a woman under intense questioning from journalists claiming to represent Iraqi television at An Nasiriyah.
Looking intensely at the screen one prisoner confirmed he was from 507 Maintenance as the camera panned to a wounded US soldier lying immobile on a sofa, his face covered in blood and with wounds to his side and arm. In the background four bodies could be seen lying on the floor of the room where the captive soldiers were being questioned.
Another of the men, sitting up, was being interviewed by an unseen person holding a microphone labelled Iraqi TV. The soldier spoke in English and at one point said: "I’m sorry. I don’t understand you." The television crew interviewed several of the other troops, including one woman. The narrator provided an Arabic translation, but it was possible to hear some of the comments in English.
"I come to shoot only if I am shot at," said one prisoner, who said he was from Kansas. Asked why he was fighting Iraqis, the same soldier replied: "They don’t bother me I don’t bother them."
The female soldier identified herself as Shauna, 30, from Texas. Her eyes darted back and forth as she was interviewed and she held her arms tightly in her lap as she was questioned. At one point, the camera panned back, showing that a massive white bandage wrapped around her ankle. Her voice was very shaky.
One of the PoWs was shown lying on his back on a bed, with apparent wounds to both arms and hands and marks on his forehead. He had a bandage on one hand and what appeared to be dried blood on his shirt, arms and face. Al-Jazeera later showed additional footage of what appeared to be a fuel or water carrier parked alongside a road and the body of a US trooper in uniform with full webbing gear and his helmet by his side. As the images were relayed around the world, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, acknowledged that some personnel were missing and angrily condemned the Iraqis for putting them on television.
"It’s illegal to do things to PoWs that are humiliating to those prisoners," he said.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, added: "This is one more crime by the Iraqi regime." In London, Downing Street also condemned the parading of the prisoners. "We would expect prisoners of war to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention as the coalition forces have treated all Iraqi prisoners of war," a spokeswoman said.
For Americans, the television parade of the captured soldiers brought back memories of the ill-treatment of captured US Black Hawk pilots in Somalia and, further back, during the Vietnam war.
According to Larry Spencer, a navy airman held captive for seven years in Vietnam, the captives will still be deep in shock and may not be aware of the gravity of the situation.
He said: "The Iraqis are known to use drugs and torture, extreme physical torture. Given the techniques they have down to a fine art, it does not take very long sometimes," he added.
"American military pilots are carefully trained for the kinds of ill-treatment expected in enemy hands, including mock interrogation sessions and briefings on the effects of certain 'truth drugs' such as scopolamine which reduce inhibitions and encourage babbling.
"The training that the military, especially aviation personnel, go through will stand them in good stead." Officially the US Military Code of Conduct says that captured personnel should give only their name, rank, serial number and date of birth, but former captives say that in practice it is understood that superhuman will is required to withstand prolonged mental pressure.
A Pentagon source said that the four captured men and one woman would be unlikely to divulge military secrets to their captors. He said: "Soldiers on the ground tend to know only their own part of the overall military picture, details of their own battalion and its operations, rather than the broader strategic picture which might be useful to the enemy.
"The Iraqis appear to be using them mainly for propaganda, but there will be operational details they could try to prise from them."
Pentagon officials, who confirmed that 12 US personnel were missing, said they were studying the broadcasts to see if the captured troops were able to send out any coded messages. Iraq’s defence minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmed, said that it would respect the Geneva Convention and would not harm US PoWs.
He added that the bodies of US soldiers were lying abandoned on a battlefield near An Nasiriyah.
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