Iraqi division commander surrenders to US troops

Updated on Mar 22, 2003 10:01 AM IST

The commander of Iraq's 51st Division surrendered on Friday to American Marines.

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PTI | ByReuters, Washington

The commander of Iraq's regular 51st Division surrendered on Friday to American Marines advancing through the desert toward Baghdad in southern Iraq, US defence officials said.

It was the first time the commander of an Iraqi division had surrendered to US and British forces, who launched a quick sweep northward from Kuwait on Thursday.

The New York Times reported earlier from Kuwait that the division's two top officers had surrendered and that the division had virtually "melted away," with most of its troops deserting their posts.

It was unclear how many Iraqi army soldiers were involved. Normal Iraqi divisions contain as many as 15,000 troops, but many of those regular units have been depleted by half since the 1991 Gulf War.

The Iraqi regular army is believed to have between 300,000 and 350,000 troops, organized into five corps and 16 divisions. Two-thirds of the regular divisions are made up of conscripts and lack modern equipment.

The most elite Iraqi units, including 15,000 members of President Saddam Hussein's personal Special Republican Guards, are now believed to be based close to Baghdad and also around Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

The US defence officials, who asked not to be identified, did not provide details but told Reuters both the commander and vice commander of the division had surrendered. The unit had been peppered in recent weeks with tens of thousands of airdropped leaflets calling on the Iraqi military to give up.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a briefing earlier in the day the United States had no ongoing negotiations with top Iraqi government officials or military commanders on surrender but that communications were under way with some units in the field.

Rumsfeld spoke at an earlier Pentagon briefing on Friday less than an hour after the United States launched a massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad and other locations in Iraq, zeroing in on several hundred military targets.

"It may very well be that, with the initiation of the ground war last (Thursday) evening and the initiation of the air war this afternoon (Friday), that we may find people responding and surrendering," he told reporters.

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