DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Looking by turns frightened or stoical, five captured U.S. soldiers were thrust in front of an Iraqi TV microphone and peppered with questions yesterday. The footage also showed at least four bodies.
U.S. officials confirmed that 12 soldiers and at least one aircraft were missing in southern Iraq, and said the troops may have been lured into a trap by Iraqi soldiers pretending to surrender.
The scenes of interrogators questioning four men and a woman were broadcast by the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera with footage from state-controlled Iraqi television. Each was interviewed individually. They spoke into a microphone labeled “Iraqi Television.”
A senior defense official said the Pentagon did not know precisely how many captives there might be, and declined to identify the unit involved so as not to panic soldiers’ families. Some Iraqi soldiers acted as though they wanted to surrender, then opened fire, the official said.
Al-Jazeera quoted unidentified Iraqi officials as saying the Iraqis are using a defensive tactic of falling back, allowing their enemy to overextend itself and become vulnerable to attack behind the lines.
Speaking on CBS, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld charged that if those seen on television were indeed coalition soldiers, “those pictures are a violation of the Geneva Conventions.”
International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Nada Doumani said the showing of the prisoners on TV violates Article 13 of the Geneva Conventions, which says prisoners should be protected from public curiosity. But she stressed that the priority at the moment is to get access to them.
“It does contradict the conventions because it’s public curiosity,” she said. “But our priority is not to put blame on any side but to check that the prisoners are safe. Let’s put the focus on getting access and ensuring safety and then we can discuss in detail the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The important thing is to have people treated in a humane way.”
Each prisoner shown on television spoke American-accented English. One was a 30-year-old woman from Texas. Her eyes darted back and forth and she held her arms tightly in her lap as she was questioned.
At one point, the camera panned back, showing a big white bandage around her ankle. Her voice was very shaky. Another prisoner, who said he was from El Paso, Texas, stared directly at the camera and spoke in a clear direct voice, often shaking his head and cupping his ear slightly to indicate that he couldn’t hear one of the questions being shot at him from around the room.
A 31-year-old sergeant from New Jersey sat bolt upright in a chair with brown armrests. His hands in his lap, he answered questions in a clipped fashion and said he was with the 507th Maintenance Company. The woman also said she was from the 507th Maintenance. Both the Air Force and Army have companies with that designation.
One of the men, sitting up, was interviewed by an unseen person holding a microphone labeled “Iraqi TV” in Arabic. The prisoner at one point said: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand you.”
The narrator provided an Arabic translation, but it was possible to hear some of the comments in English.
The prisoners looked terrified. One captive, who said he was from Kansas, answered all his questions in a shaky voice, his eyes darting back and forth between the interviewer and another person who couldn’t be seen on camera.
Asked why he came to Iraq, he replied, “I come to fix broke stuff.”
Prodded again by the interviewer, he was asked if he came to shoot Iraqis.
“No, I come to shoot only if I am shot at,” he said. “They (Iraqis) don’t bother me, I don’t bother them.”
Another prisoner, who said he was from Texas, said only: “I follow orders.”
A voice off-camera asked how many officers were in his unit. “I don’t know, sir,” the man replied.
Another prisoner, who also said he was from Texas, was lying on an elaborate maroon mat. The camera panned from his feet to his head, showing one of his arms to be wounded and folded across his chest.
Iraqi TV attempted to interview him, at one point trying to cradle his head to steady it for the camera. They eventually helped him sit up, but he seemed to sway slightly.
The camera showed four bodies on the floor of the room. The station said they and the prisoners were captured around An Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra.
U.S. officials said yesterday that U.S. Marines defeated Iraqi forces near An Nasiriyah in the sharpest engagement of the war. But Iraqi forces also ambushed an army supply convoy and 12 soldiers were missing, they said.