Iraq's entire 51st Division surrenders as Allies advance

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The Independent Online

An entire Iraqi armoured division of 8,000 men surrendered or deserted yesterday, opening the route for US and British forces to capture the southern city of Basra.

An entire Iraqi armoured division of 8,000 men surrendered or deserted yesterday, opening the route for US and British forces to capture the southern city of Basra.

The general commanding the 51st Division – said to be one of the better units in the Iraqi regular army – agreed to surrender with his deputy and many of his officers. Hundreds of soldiers were also said to have given themselves up and others had apparently deserted.

The collapse of the division, equipped with 200 tanks, opens the way for US and British marines and British armoured forces to capture Iraq's second city today. US forces, which have been bombarding Iraqi front-line troops with propaganda for weeks, were said to be in negotiation with several other unit commanders. Coalition forces often found Iraqi tanks and other weapons abandoned in the desert.

Many of the surrendering Iraqis were demoralised and poorly equipped, with some wearing only T-shirts and carrying worn Kalashnikov rifles. "I kind of felt sorry for them," said one American officer. "A lot of them looked hungry. They haven't been fed in a while."

Earlier, US forces took the town of Safwan on the Iraq-Kuwait border, where residents waved at marines but said little. A woman threw herself to the feet of soldiers until a man hurriedly came and led her away. One man, identified only as Abdullah and riding in a black pick-up truck, said he welcomed the arrival of the troops. "We're very happy. Saddam Hussein is no good. Saddam Hussein a butcher," he said.

News pictures from elsewhere on the advancing southern front showed one group of 40 Iraqis marching down a road, hands on their heads, toward the Americans and giving themselves up. They were immediately told to lie face down on the ground before being searched for arms by US Marines. Members of another Marine platoon were seen capturing scores of Iraqi soldiers. Some of them tossed hand-grenades into bunkers in an attempt to clear them out of enemy soldiers.

American soldiers are under instructions to treat prisoners with care, to send the message to other Iraqi forces that they will not be harmed in the event they also surrender.

Dealing with the Iraqi soldiers adds another layer of complication to the advance on Iraq. However, it appeared last night that in many instances, US commanders were simply taking weapons from the Iraqi soldiers and suggesting they just go home. Such a strategy lifts the burden on the advancing troops of having to deal with hundreds, and eventually thousands, of prisoners of war.

US officials had previously indicated they hoped to allow all Iraqi soldiers who surrender to stay in place and to avoid shipping them to prisoner-of-war camps. There was turmoil during the 1991 Gulf War when 60,000 to 70,000 Iraqis were captured, most of whom surrendered in large numbers. The prisoners were taken to Saudi Arabia, which later released them.

For days before the start of the war, the American army was conducting an intensive information campaign to encourage Iraqi commanders and their soldiers to give themselves up quickly and avoid any fighting. The message has been delivered in part by dropping millions of leaflets on Iraqi territory giving instructions to the Iraqis on how they should surrender without coming under fire. There were reports last night that some Iraqi soldiers were carrying the leaflets with them as they surrendered to the advancing Americans.

In addition, the American military has been deploying specially converted C-130 cargo aircraft to broadcast radio programmes over Iraqi territory. As well as music, the planes have been sending out spoken messages on the importance of surrendering and abandoning President Hussein.

The Pentagon in recent days has even e-mailed Iraqi commanders urging them to surrender and disarm their brigades, divisions or platoons. It has also prepared legal contracts known as "articles of capitulation", under which Iraqi officers would similarly agree not to fight the coalition forces.

The first article states: "All members of [Iraqi unit name/ post] will at once cease active operations and any hostile acts against US and coalition forces and will remain in uniform."