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British medic takes fear
out of Iraqi POWs' minds

Shyam Bhatia in Basra exclusively for rediff.com | April 07, 2003 20:19 IST

Iraqi soldiers have been told they would be injected with poison if captured by British or American troops, it emerged on Sunday.

US forces have tried to counter Iraqi propaganda by carrying out leaflet drops, saying that anyone who surrendered would be treated well.

But a British medic, who has been acting as an interpreter for injured prisoners of war, said the men were still "completely terrified" and believed they would be executed.

"They could have been kept in sanitised barracks and never shown the US leaflets," he said.

Captain Wassim Slim, who was born in Saudi Arabia but was educated in Britain and speaks fluent Arabic, said: "They are completely terrified, they have been fed a lot of stuff about what will happen to them if they are captured.

"They're hungry, weak and pretty terrified. They have been indoctrinated so they're in a Catch 22. They don't want to fight against this overwhelming force, but at the same time they think that if they throw themselves to our mercy they will be injected. It's a very tough decision."

The latest prisoners to fall into British hands are paramilitary soldiers captured in Basra.

Unlike the regular soldiers, they at first refuse all help from British medics.

One man captured on Sunday deep inside the city centre by members of the British 7th Armoured Brigade has been identified as a French Algerian. Interrogators are trying to establish how the man, said to be in his late twenties, came to be inside Basra.

A British Army spokesman said: "We have seen little sign of regular soldiers in these last few days."

Captain Slim, 28, an army dentist, spoke to some five-six Iraqi prisoners of war inside a mobile hospital.

They were mostly conscript privates in their early 20s, but there was also a more senior man, believed to be aged 50. All belonged to the 51st Mechanised Division and all had gunshot wounds.

Captain Slim said they were surprised to find someone who spoke Arabic, but became calmer as he explained the situation.

"I explain to them that we are not going to hurt them, that we only want to treat their wounds," he said.

"By the time they went, they were thanking us. Obviously a great weight had been lifted from their minds, some myths had been dispelled. They shook our hands if they could and you could see they were a lot more relaxed."

The Iraqis were thought to have been injured in a gunfight with US troops. One of them died before British medical teams could reach him.

Capt Slim and other army medics said they would give exactly the same medical treatment to prisoners of war as they would to British or US troops. "We are non-combatants, we are doctors, dentists and nurses, we are just here to help people," Capt Slim said.

"Everyone gets treated the same. They're treated on their medical needs, nothing else."

Capt Slim was born in Saudi Arabia, but was sent to an English boarding school in Eastbourne, East Sussex, before going to Epsom College and studying dentistry at Guy's Hospital in London.

He now lives in Germany.

rediff.com Senior Editor Shyam Bhatia is the co-author of Saddam's Bomb, on Iraq's search for nuclear weapons.

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