The rumor within the U.S. military spread like wildfire, from Kuwait to Qatar to the Pentagon.
A dozen or more Iraqi soldiers supposedly tried to surrender to U.S. and British forces Sunday night along the Iraqi border. But they were turned away because neither country is at war with Iraq at the moment.
A spokesman at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Qatar, Col. Ray Shepherd, said he had heard talk of the attempted surrender but could not confirm it. British newspapers, citing intelligence sources, ran articles earlier this week detailing the surrender, although the British Defense Ministry denied the report.
If Iraqi soldiers do try to surrender before war starts, Shepherd said, there's not much U.S. forces can do except turn them over to the local authorities.
"We would do nothing. We would let Kuwait do that. It's their country," Shepherd said. "We're not at war with anyone."
Kuwait begs to differ.
It says U.S. forces would be responsible for Iraqi prisoners, or Iraqi refugees, for the very reason Americans cite for not accepting them. There is no war.
"Either they would turn them back or they would take care of them," said Tahani Al-Terkate, the press attache at the Embassy of Kuwait in Washington. "As Kuwait is not part of this war, the Kuwaiti authorities have nothing to do with it."
White House officials referred queries to the Pentagon, saying they did not know what procedure would be if Iraqis surrender before war breaks out.
Under international law, it appears both the U.S. Central Command and Kuwait could be right.
While Iraqi soldiers may not enjoy the protections offered to Iraqi civilians, there is nothing stopping the United States from helping them.
At the same time, experts say, there is nothing stopping Kuwait, or any other neighboring country, for that matter, from helping as well.
Joung-ah Ghedini, a spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, said the finer points of international law complicate the legal status of soldiers, especially when there is no war.
An Iraqi soldier seeking asylum, for example, for fear of persecution on religious, political or social grounds, could qualify for refugee status, Ghedini said. An Iraqi soldier merely wanting to surrender to U.S. forces would not.
For now, how to deal with Iraqi deserters is unclear. "How to classify them is completely a mystery at this point," Ghedini said.
As a result, Iraqi soldiers who want out will have to wait for the United States to invade to get help. Civilians face a similar dilemma in many cases, because neighboring countries do not want them.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has security forces on its borders equipped with thermal cameras to spot fleeing Iraqis.
In Kuwait, the United States and Kuwait plan to create a humanitarian operations center to coordinate relief efforts. But Al-Terkate said it will not be operating until war breaks out.
As of Wednesday, she said, "It sits empty."
In the event of war, the United Nations refugee agency expects up to 900,000 refugees.
Hiram Ruiz, a spokesman for the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees, cites a litany of worries, including whether refugees will inadvertently flee to the front lines and whether neighboring countries will let them in.
"We envision people in essence trying to head virtually in every direction," Ruiz said. "The potential for a lot of people being put in harm's way is great."
In an effort to persuade people to stay in Iraq, war planners will offer temporary food and shelter as U.S. forces advance.
U.S. propaganda piped into Iraq suggests the U.S. military wants Iraqi soldiers to wave the white flag before the first shot is fired.
A radio broadcast reminds listeners that Saddam Hussein "sacrificed thousands of soldiers" during the Iran-Iraq war.
"When the Iraqi soldiers that were taken prisoner were returned," the broadcast says, "Saddam ordered their ears to be cut off as punishment for being captured."
"Saddam does not wish the soldiers of Iraq to have the honor and dignity that their profession warrants. Do not let Saddam tarnish the reputation of soldiers any longer.
"Make the decision."
The decision, Shepherd explained, is to persuade Iraqi soldiers not to fire at coalition forces patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq.
"We're telling them to lay down arms and don't fire at war planes," Shepherd said, "not to surrender."
But stories published in the British press earlier in the week say that a "motley bunch" of about a dozen Iraqi soldiers, hungry and poorly equipped, tried to surrender to British forces.
They had heard firing, the press reports said, and thought it was the start of the war.
_ Paul de la Garza covers MacDill Air Force Base. He can be reached at 813-226-3403, or at delagarzasptimes.com.