By Richard Edwards in Umm Qasr, Southern Iraq
They sat in silence, hands cuffed behind their backs, sandbags on their heads, kneeling at the gates of Iraq’s main prisoner of war camp.
The six Ba’ath party and Fedayeen suspects were arrested in a series of night-time raids across Umm Qasr yesterday and moved to a secret facility.
As high priority and dangerous prisoners – one man’s ID card linked him to the Ba’athist Interior Ministry – they were taken from their homes in darkness, lifted from their beds by Royal Marines and driven to a high security camp in southern Iraq.
The suspects’ sandbag hoods, used to protect the identity of two informers with the Commandos, were then removed.
There they gazed upon a vast expanse of dusty land, lined with corrugated steel and peppered with blocks of tents, the home to more than 4,000 prisoners of war. It plans to expand to accommodate 10,000 in total.
Hours earlier, under the beautiful mantle of stars which lit a clear night sky, a convoy of Land Rovers and armoured cars crept through the deserted, dark streets of Umm Qasr.
Soldiers from 42 Commando waited, poised in the back of the vehicles, checking their weapons and occasionally glancing up at each other’s faces.
The streets they were searching for had no names, the houses no numbers. They were working on instinct, the ornate design of gates or the colour of a door.
Then, at one minute past midnight, engines were cut and the men leapt out into the darkness.
Four of them scuttled up ladders and jumped over a wall, thrusting open the outside gates to allow a quartet of troops past before kicking down the front door.
They rushed in, a robust crew who knew bullets could fly from any direction.
Outside dozens of Marines fanned around the house and street, lying in the dirt as they provided cover.
A clatter echoed inside, followed by some shouting and within seconds the Commandos emerged with a suspect.
There was little noise, little struggle. He knew his fate.
A Marine covered the man’s head with a sandbag, pinning him on the floor and binding his hands with plastic cuffs behind his back. He repeated the same word: “Yes, Yes.” Inside the house women and children huddled in a dimly lit corner. There was no crying or protesting, they simply fixed a glazed stare at each other as they sat in a close circle, squinting at the torch lights.
The Commandos moved smartly from room to room, speaking in short, abrupt sentences as they searched in the gloom.
As one of them kept guard on a staircase, a thin trickle of sweat ran from one’s helmet down the side of his cheek. It was a warm, stuffy house.
Another emerged from a bedroom, carrying military uniforms. They were collected in the back of a vehicle, together with briefcases and documents.
Six men were rounded up from eight houses in the two-hour raid and as the night dragged on neighbours started to peer through their gates and emerge from holes in the wall.
One smiled and put his thumbs up. He said: “Good, good. No more Saddam.” But he warned: “There are many more, all around.” The people of Umm Qasr, who welcomed British troops with smiles and cheers last week, are still split.
They are still a thirsty people, who are desperate for a system of fair water distribution to be put in place.
And despite Marines making daily foot patrols and dominating the area militarily, they are still a fearful people who worry Saddam’s influence could return.
The memories of 1991, when they rose against the dictator but received no Allied support, still loom large.
BUT some locals are actively helping in the struggle to change Iraq.
As the sun cracked over the horizon, spreading the first light over Umm Qasr, the prisoners were collected together and lined up on a patch of dry ground.
Two men – informers who had followed the raid and pointed out the houses – were watching from a truck, putting their own lives at risk to confirm the identity of Saddam’s soldiers.
Marines stood behind the suspects and briefly lifted the sandbag hoods to reveal a face.
The informers nodded yes or whispered no, and the confirmed suspects were loaded back on to trucks and taken away.
By midday, the informers were back with their families and their streets, scarves and camouflage replaced by no more than sandals and shawls.
That morning, they had been the bravest men in Iraq.