A Desperate Flood Of Refugees

The American forces do their best to relieve Iraqi suffering

Last Wednesday a platoon from the U.S. First Battalion, Seventh Infantry, headed out on a night mission deep inside Iraq. Their target: five Iraqis holed up in a gutted water tanker, armed to the teeth. When the Americans pulled up, the Iraqis raised their AK-47s. But they quickly surrendered when a Bradley Fighting Vehicle trained its 25-mm gun on them. It was police work: the Iraqis weren't Baghdad troops but a gang of bandits who had robbed and raped refugees flooding into the U.S.-occupied zone. The job of capturing them fell to the American occupiers. "My men started calling me Matt Dillon," said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Stephen Smith. "But this exceeds the scope of what our routine is supposed to be."

For many American soldiers in the allied zone, this phase of the gulf conflict is the worst. Day after day, destitute refugees file through U.S. checkpoints, begging for food, water, medical help and sanctuary from Iraq's bloody civil war. The Americans do their best to help staunch the suffering. Medics are treating malnourished infants, children whose limbs have been blown off by stray ordnance, adults suffering from gunshot wounds. But many officers and soldiers question whether this should be their responsibility at all. "It's a mistake. This is a U.N. humanitarian project, not an Army project," said Lt. Col. Burt Faibisoff, a reservist eager to return to his stateside practice as a plastic surgeon. He worries about the Iraqis in the U.S. zone after the Americans leave: "You can't just plop down for two or three months and then walk away, leaving people in the lurch."

The dilemma is acute for troops in the allied occupied zone that covers 15 percent of Iraq's territory. Iraqi rebels, mainly Shiite Muslims, have become increasingly desperate under the onslaught of troops loyal to Saddam Hussein. For the U.S. forces, this is one of the most agonizing aspects of the occupation: to watch Saddam Hussein's troops butcher his own people only a few miles away. Iraqi refugees cross into the occupied zone with horrifying tales of Iraqi Army atrocities: babies laid in front of advancing tanks, civilians burned alive, reprisal massacres. Some refugees display wounds and burns that suggest torture. Others show evidence of rape. Government reprisals in the Shiite city of Karbala, which insurgents had held in early March, included a massacre inside a hospital suspected of treating rebel fighters. One Iraqi POW, an Air Force radio operator, said he saw about 200 bodies in a hospital, including doctors, nurses and patients. "If only a third of the atrocity stories we hear are true, it's enough to curdle your blood," said one U.S. lieutenant colonel. After recent rebel setbacks in the south, American troops have watched reprisals by Iraqi troops against villages once held by insurgents. "In our thermal sights, we can see people being dragged out of their homes and cars and beaten," said Capt. Rhett Scott, who mans a checkpoint six miles from the city of al-Nasiriya. "But it's happening on the other side of the demarcation line, so we're powerless to act."

The military has been able to provide some food and water to needy Iraqi civilians. Many soldiers began handing out their own MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) rations and water to refugees--but that is hardly enough. An estimated 25,000 civilians have flocked to the area since March 2. Last week the Fourth Battalion, Third Armored Division, set up a food-distribution center in the Iraqi town of Safwan, just over the border from Kuwait. The first day, it handed out more than 20,000 MREs. It was a chaotic scene. Agitated refugees formed themselves into long lines, but then the lines disintegrated into food riots for three days running. Refugees also ransacked a nearby medical clinic. American armored vehicles had to be brought in to restore order, but at the weekend Safwan was still in disarray. Hundreds of refugees poured into town, pitching camp in abandoned buildings and organizing anti-Saddam demonstrations. When Saudi-organized food trucks tried to hand out rations, they were chased down the street by hundreds of Iraqis. "This is not my job," grumbled battalion commander Lt. Col. John Kalb. He shook his head at the paradox of this war: "After killing these guys, now we're helping 'em."

Medical care was proceeding a bit more smoothly. Last Thursday, at an aid station set up 155 miles from Kuwait City by the First Battalion, Seventh Infantry, four self-proclaimed resistance fighters sat stoically as American medics labored over neglected battle wounds. One of them had been shot in the finger; amputation was prescribed. Another had received a serious shrapnel wound in the leg 25 days ago, and the broken bone had to be reset. Yet another was a veteran fighter; he'd had his left leg amputated during the Iran-Iraq War and was now being treated for shrapnel wounds received in a recent battle against the Republic Guard in Basra. ""Inshallah' [God willing] Saddam Hussein will soon be finished," Karim Abud managed to say as he lay on a stretcher in the surgical tent. Four infant girls were brought in with severe dehydration; three died.

As the occupation drags on, U.S. medics are being asked to treat ailments that predate the gulf war. One man with pins in his leg from a fracture six months ago even brought his own X-rays to help the medics with his case. Last month an Iraqi doctor from the town of Suq al-Shuyukh visited the aid station to introduce a patient who had run out of prescription medications. "We took a couple of his patients," said battalion surgeon Capt. Louis Rodriquez-Betancourt. "We see a lot of Iraqis who got initial care but now their hospital has been destroyed." The trend has disturbed some doctors who believe it's not right to begin treating patients of this sort without being able to offer any follow-up. "We can't provide consistent long-term care here," contends reservist Faibisoff. "Most of us feel we've done our job and should go home."