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U.S. to Negotiate Capitulation Agreements With Iraqi Military

By Peter Baker

Edging toward war, the U.S. military is trying to negotiate “capitulation agreements” with Iraqi commanders under which enemy troops would turn over most of their weapons and return to their barracks rather than be taken as prisoners of war, U.S. officers said Monday.

Under the agreements, Iraqi officers would be allowed to keep their sidearms and remain in charge of their units as long as they kept a promise to stay out of the battle. U.S. forces would then be free to march toward Baghdad without being bogged down by tens of thousands of prisoners.

The attempt to brush by as many Iraqi units as possible has emerged as one goal of a multifaceted invasion plan that officers here said could be executed any moment that President Bush gives the word. As that moment seemed to draw near, interviews in recent days with Lt. Gen. James Conway and other senior officers in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and an attached British contingent provided a glimpse into a war room on the verge of battle.

Perhaps the biggest worry exhibited by field commanders was the potential of a chemical weapons attack. Marine officers said intelligence indicates President Saddam Hussein has given “release authority” to Iraq’s regional military commanders and possibly down to corps commanders.

Marine commanders have identified three points where U.S. forces could come under fire from artillery shells or rockets loaded with nerve agents or chemicals: the moment they cross the border from Kuwait, the moment they cross the Euphrates River and the moment they genuinely threaten Baghdad.

Conway, the Marine commander here, said he believes his troops will face a particular threat of attack by weapons of mass destruction when they take on Saddam’s elite divisions guarding Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

“The period of greatest threat, to my way of thinking, is when we would start to engage a Republican Guard unit,” Conway said in the white, Astroturf-floored tent that serves as his office at the Marines’ desert headquarters, about 25 miles northwest of Kuwait City and 25 miles south of the Iraqi border.

Seeking the capitulation accords, the U.S. side has been in communication with Iraqi commanders through radio, e-mail and intermediaries including past Iraqi defectors, according to U.S. officials in Washington. Asked if any Iraqi commanders had accepted the offer, Conway replied, “We’re encouraged that could happen in some cases.”

“Essentially they’re out of the fight and we move on,” said Conway, who will lead the largest ground force into Iraq if Bush orders an attack. “Their officers would be allowed to retain their sidearms to keep order and control. We think we afford them a certain amount of dignity in a situation like that, as opposed to standing around with their hands in their pockets in a POW camp. That’s the way we’d much rather do business.”