8,000-Man Iraqi Division Surrenders

Iraqi soldier surrender to India Co., 3rd Batt., 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division following a gunfight at the headquarters of the Iraqi 51st and 32nd mechanized infantry divisions near Az Bayer, Iraq on Friday, March 21, 2003.
An entire division of the Iraqi army, numbering 8,000 soldiers, surrendered to coalition forces in southern Iraq Friday, Pentagon officials said. The move marked the largest single unit to surrender en masse.

Iraq's 51st Infantry Division surrendered as coalition forces advanced toward Basra, Iraq's second largest city. The mechanized division had about 200 tanks before the war, according to independent analysts and U.S. officials.

The 51st was one of the better equipped and trained in Iraq's regular army forces and was the key division protecting Basra, a major transportation and oil shipment hub on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf.

The surrender of the 51st removed a major obstacle to the U.S. and British goal of securing all of southern Iraq so forces could focus on the push to Baghdad.

The division also was important to Saddam Hussein's government for keeping Shiite Muslims — the majority in southern Iraq — from rebelling against Saddam's largely Sunni government.

Earlier Friday, hordes of unorganized Iraqi soldiers, underfed and overwhelmed, surrendered in the face of a state-of-the-art allied assault.

These were not the fabled and well-fed Republican Guardsmen who anchor Saddam's defense — these were a rag-tag army, many of them draftees, often in T-shirts. Their handguns and small arms could accomplish little against opposing forces wielding 21st century weaponry.

"I kind of felt sorry for them," said one U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A lot of them looked hungry. They haven't been fed in a while."

He spoke after U.S. Marines and their allies took control of the strategic port city of Umm Qasr and with it, Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf. The out-classed Iraqis fought with small arms, pistols, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

As CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports, U.S. Marines were being greeted if not with garlands then at least with handshakes, by residents of the town of Safwan in the deep southeast corner of Iraq. This area populated by Shiites has no great love for Saddam Hussein and the rulers in Baghdad who come from the rival Suni sect of Islam and who brutally put down a rebellion here after the first Gulf War.

Authorities said the nation's southern oil fields would be secured by day's end.

At the same time, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division surged 100 miles into Iraq. Much more was to come — an extraordinary land-based armada of allied weaponry and troops was caught in an enormous traffic jam in Kuwait, ready to strike when it could cross the border.

But often, the opponent advanced with a white flag in hand, instead of a rifle.

Within a few hours of crossing into southern Iraq, the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit encountered 200 or more Iraqi troops seeking to surrender. One group of 40 Iraqis marched down a two-lane road toward the Americans and gave up.

Another group of Iraq soldiers alongside a road waved a white flag and their raised hands, trying to flag down a group of journalists so they could surrender.

Forty to 50 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to a Marine traffic control unit. They came down the road in the open back of a troop vehicle, their hands in the air for about a mile before they reached the Marines.

Their decision to give up the fight was not unexpected, or unprompted; for months, Iraq has been bombarded with messages from the Americans, urging its soldiers to refuse to fight.

This war is being characterized as a war of liberation, not conquest, and images of Iraqis helping American soldiers destroy images of Saddam will help. But images of U.S. soldiers taking down the Iraqi flag to raise Old Glory won't. The Iraqi flag was soon put back up.

And if there was any question whether some units of the Iraqi military would fight, it was answered on the first night. Their fire was returned with interest and a covering artillery barrage was called in, reports Phillips.

There were pockets of resistance, some of it stiff; a second combat death was reported Friday, a member of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force who was wounded while battling a platoon of Iraqi infantry.

However, the U.S. military continues to encourage Iraqi soldiers to surrender rather than risk annihilation fighting to defend Saddam.

At a Pentagon news conference Friday, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld called upon Iraq's military to "do the honorable thing, stop fighting that you may live to enjoy a free Iraq, where you and your children can grow and prosper."

How many Iraqis had surrendered? No one knew for sure. Rumsfeld said he knew of a few hundred, and others who just quit fighting. "A lot of people just leave and melt into the countryside," he said.

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.