At least 180 Iraqi soldiers have fled to Saudi Arabia as defectors, and dozens more filter back and forth across the border every day seeking food and water from front-line Arab troops, according to senior U.S. officials here. The defections have become a source of U.S.-Saudi friction, with American officials complaining that they have been barred from the interrogations of the Iraqi soldiers and expressing concern that the Saudis may be doing too little to encourage a further exodus.
Some U.S. officials said that they view with particular misgiving a scene played out daily along the northern border, where small groups of Iraqis cross over to Saudi positions for amiable visits and then are permitted to return to their positions on the other side of the frontier.
Saudi Arabia's handling of the incidents has underscored the unusual fraternal relations between the two large Arab military forces aligned against each other across Saudi Arabia's border with Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
"It's basically a practice that's going on all along the border," said one ranking U.S. military official. "The Saudis see it as taking care of their Moslem brothers."
In disclosing for the first time the sizable number of Iraqi defectors, the U.S. officials expressed frustration at the unwillingness of their Saudi counterparts to present the soldiers to the public _ a step the Americans believe could have significant propaganda value.
"The Iraqi soldiers come across, and they tell the Saudis everything they think the Saudis want to hear," one ranking U.S. official said. "Then the Saudis turn around and tell us everything they think we want to hear.
"That means by the time it gets to us, we're left with lots of stories about unhappy soldiers, shortages of food and equipment, and no paychecks," the official said. "But we're not so sure it's really like that."
In maintaining a low profile about the defections, the Saudi government appears to have made a deliberate decision to avoid any actions that might encourage large numbers of additional Iraqi soldiers to make their way across the border.
The Saudis have played down the value of the information provided by enlisted men, and they have warned that a military confrontation could be provoked if, for example, a large number of Iraqi soldiers sought to escape en masse against the determined opposition of their sentries.
"If some Iraqi soldiers tried to drive a tank across the border and some trigger-happy Iraqis shot at it," said one source, summarizing the Saudi position, "that could be it."
With few liaison officers in front-line Saudi positions, the U.S. military apparently were unaware of the extent of such fraternization until late last month, when Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. forces in the region, visited a Saudi post near the border.
As a Saudi colonel asked the general if he would like to see some Iraqi troops, Schwarzkopf eagerly scanned the horizon with his binoculars. Not there, the Saudi reportedly said, pointing instead to the ground below them.
Looking down, Schwarzkopf reportedly saw a parked Iraqi truck, its driver and passengers having only moments before been greeted by Saudi troops and offered food and drink.
A military official who described the Sept. 29 visit said Schwarzkopf even looked under the hood of the truck and noted that its engine was in disrepair and its battery jury-rigged, but indicated that the commander never met the Iraqi troops.
An account of the incident was first reported this week in Newsweek magazine. In confirming its main details Thursday, U.S. sources said they now understand that such exchanges continue nearly every day along front lines, where there are virtually no American troops.