Desperate Iraqis are making their way to the U.S. troop encampment here in the mistaken belief the American Army can get them visas for the United States.
Failing that, they try for Saudi Arabia, where they envision well-paid oil-field jobs being readily available.Three students from the Technical Institute in Basra drove the 25 miles to the border post in an Iraqi taxi they said they had found on the street. They contended their families were in Saudi Arabia and wanted permission to go through.
But Sgt. Steven Hill of San Antonio, Texas, an Army-trained National Guard interpreter, told them they would be able to go only as far as Safwan, a wrecked border town on the Iraq-Kuwait border now filled with women washing clothes in street puddles and children playing in the rubble.
"My uncle American," pleaded one of the trio in broken English, saying he wanted to go to the United States.
The three, who wouldn't give their names, were thoroughly dejected when Hill informed them Iraqis are no longer welcome in Saudi Arabia, the United States is an impossible dream and that they won't get through the Kuwaiti checkpoints down the road if they try.
Another man breaks down almost in tears as he pleads for the Americans to help, saying Saddam Hussein will kill him if he is found in Iraq. He cuts his throat with his finger to emphasize his desperation and says he's an Iraqi soldier, although he has no identification to prove it.
But he, too, is told there's nothing that can be done in the American camp to help him.
Hill said the Iraqis tell him that Saddam's army is still torturing resistance fighters they catch. "They say the army is in control of the city during the day because they've got the tanks, but at night it's the resistance forces," he said.
Earlier this week, one resistance fighter showed up at the camp with a bullet in his big toe that he said was put there during an interrogation session.
Hill said the Iraqis who are flooding into the refuge at Safwan are terrified what's going to happen when there is an official cease-fire and the American troops withdraw.
"Just say we're dead," they tell him.
The unit here is "The Bayonets," the 5th Battalion of the 5th Cavalry of the 3rd U.S. Army Division. Last week marked the second time they've moved into Iraq in the last month.
The first was in late February as they led the battle to free Kuwait, but now it's just duty guarding the cease-fire line in Iraq - which is marked only by a row of power-line pylons poles marching across the desert toward the horizon each way from their camp.
Sgt. Jim White is a National Guardsman whose 19-member Draper, Utah, unit is composed of Arab-speaking linguists. White is convinced the Army has forgotten him. He's been split off from his regular unit and assigned to the border unit composed of active-duty Army troops from Germany to translate for soldiers and doctors on the front-line.
White's job now is to quiz the Iraqis who drive down the highway from war-ravaged Basra in their Mercedes or pickup trucks, seeking food, water and medical care.
The main job of the front-line forces is to monitor these movements. They also keep an eye on Iraqi troops with their armored personnel carriers across the desert - the Iraqis are regularly spotted roughing up those trying to get through to the American lines.
Being broken off from his unit, White explained, means that his mail is lost and he hasn't had a letter from home since January. And he has pay problems that his commander could iron out if he could find him, but that no one here can deal with since he's a Guardsman and they're regular Army.
When the Bayonets recently got new desert boots, White couldn't get his pair because he's not part of that Army unit.
"I just want people to know that things aren't just hunky dory up here," he said. White adds he's been here seven months and resents seeing other units who came later than his happily heading home.
"Why are all these troops going home, and I'm not?" he said.