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Thousands Wander In Desert, Fleeing Rebel War in Iraq

Saddam's drive against revolt sends many on trek to US lines, where little help awaits

A NEW army is on the move in the Middle East, an army of frightened and starving refugees fleeing Iraq's civil war. They roam in thousands across the flat arid desert of southern Iraq, in search of water and food and the safety of the United States occupied zone. But once they get there, they receive only what soldiers can spare from their own rations. There is as yet no agency or coalition-organized system to help those trying to cross hundreds of miles of desert.

The apparent success of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard in quashing the Shiite rebellion in the south has sparked an exodus of civilians from the Iraqi holy cities of Najaf, Karbala, and the southern towns of Samawa and Nasiriya on the Euphrates River.

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Some arrive in battered taxis, vehicles with wheels missing, and flatbed trucks, the women crammed tightly in the middle, the men hanging grimly to the sides. The less fortunate walk, often for many days, along the desert highways to the Kuwaiti border town of Safwan, 120 miles away. Whole families, 20 people or more, camp along the road, huddled together for warmth and security against the cold night air and wild animals.

Their first priority is safety, then water, then food. After that, they talk of going to Saudi Arabia, the land of wealth and work, or of gaining visas to the United States or Canada. For most, such dreams appear far from reality. They will do well to make it to the Red Cross camp farther down the road in the no man's land between Kuwait and Iraq, to cardboard tents and sparse charity. So far, no international organization is working in the hundreds of square miles of territory in Iraq held by US forces .

At 6:00 p.m., the highway leading to the Red Cross camp closes, by order of the US 3rd Armored Division. At this US checkpoint near Safwan, Iraq nearly 2,000 people gather to wait for the road to be reopened in the morning.

A slip of a crescent moon casts its faint light over the scene. In the distance, packs of wild dogs howl, their chorus joined by the cries of hungry children. The refugees sit, crouched on their heels, as close to the US soldiers as they can get. Men carrying babies in their arms approach the occasional passing foreigner, begging for water. Huge bonfires lit by the US troops for light and security, add to the eerie atmosphere. "Don't give them anything" says a US soldier. "You'll start a riot. Please, p lease don't give him water." In the morning, he said, the refugees will be given food and water to last the day.

The daily influx of thousands fleeing Saddam's apparent victory over some elements of the rebels has landed firmly in America's lap. Coping with it at ground level is taxing the US troops.

"Sanitation? What's that?" says a checkpoint guard with an ironic laugh, as he surveys thousands of refugees gathered around a few US troops. "We get a bulldozer every morning to cover it all up."

The dilemma the soldiers face is that if anything more permanent is set up, then a refugee camp could grow, attracting thousands. "We can't cope with what we have now," says the sergeant.

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Down the road at the next checkpoint, a different type of refugee is being handled. Here, more than 240 men, former soldiers in Saddam's Army, are huddled under a flyover, lit by the bright lights of an armored personnel carrier. Disarmed and despondent they may be, but they outnumber the 3rd Armored Division whose troops man the checkpoint. US soldiers are nervous, their fingers permanently on the triggers of their weapons.

"You don't have to shake a guy in the morning out here" a soldier says. "You just say his name, and he's awake instantly."

All over southern Iraq, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers turn up daily at US checkpoints, asking to be taken prisoner. Until last week, US troops were under orders to turn them back. Now, they come in droves, their Army papers checked before packing them into groups for transport to Saudi prisoner of war camps.

"Three meals a day and a ticket to Saudi Arabia is all anyone wants around here. And we're giving it to them," says Capt. Rhett Scott, of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

Captain Scott's checkpoint was the last along the desert highway to Baghdad. At a nearby roadblock outside Souk al Shuyouk, a town taken from the rebels by Saddam's Republican Guard three days ago, a woman shrouded in black beseeches US soldiers to take her son.

"Take him, take him, before Saddam kills him," she pleads to a US soldier. Many of Scott's men are angry that the order was given to stop fighting. "We should never have stopped. We could have been in Basra at the end of the 100 hours," says Staff Sergeant Nicholson as he fends off hungry children. "The refugees want us to go in and fight Saddam, but right now it is not on our agenda."

As refugees, both military and civilian, stream in thousands to the US zone, they speak of massacres and phosphorous weapons used against the rebels. Hundreds, they say, are being executed even as cities are strafed indiscriminately from the air by Saddam's attack helicopters. Each rebel leader is given the chance to give himself up, and to be photographed with a portrait of Saddam. If he does not, then his house and everyone in it, is destroyed, the refugees say.

Such tactics seem, for the moment, to have put down the rebellion in southern Iraq, leaving the Republican Guard free to concentrate on the Kurdish rebellion in the north. Whole Guard units are reported moving out of southern cities, leaving Army units in charge. Defections have caused the Iraqis to put Guard officers in charge of Army units.

But so far, Scott thinks Saddam's Army has little appetite for a rebellion against its Baathist officers. "They're more prone to surrender to us, than rebellion against their officers," Scott says.

Just a few miles away at the site of the ancient city of Ur, civilians and refugees say they feel safe with the Americans around.

"I can sleep at night now," says Naif, the elderly watchman whose job it is to guard the 6,000-year-old ziggurat and birthplace of Abraham. Barefoot children scamper around as he ambles through the ruins littered with the empty American MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) containers.

"Saddam?" Naif says reflectively. He silently passes his finger across his throat. "He just wants to kill us all.

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