Dozens of Iraqi soldiers released in a prisoner-of-war exchange with Iran descended from a chartered Red Cross DC-9 Saturday and kissed the ground of their homeland.
Iraqi officials said they had been expecting 115 sick and wounded prisoners of war Saturday, but only 51 were aboard the aircraft when it landed at Baghdad's airport.The former POWs, captured during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran, shouted "Long live Iraq" and kissed Iraqi soil as they left the plane. The repatriated soldiers were apparently unaware of what had happened to other prisoners scheduled to join them on the trip home.
The number of POWs returned to Baghdad Thursday in the first of the prisoner exchanges also was less than expected.
Iran said the reduction in the number of Iraqis sent home was because some of them had decided to stay behind and others had recovered from their wounds, making them ineligible for repatriation.
"Some have asked for political asylum, and others have overcome their illness, making them ineligible for repatriation," said Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency, monitored in Manama, Bahrain. It was the same claim made Thursday when Iran released 52 of an expected 115 POWs.
Iraq responded Thursday by reducing the number of Iranian POWs to be repatriated from 41 to 19. Saturday, Iraq said it would release only 18 of the 41 Iranians scheduled for return to Tehran.
Iran said Red Cross doctors verified 21 Iraqi POWs scheduled for the flight back to Baghdad Saturday "were no longer ill, and others needed medical tests to see whether they were eligible for release."
But a Red Cross spokesman in Baghdad said he was unaware such a verification occurred. He said only the Red Cross could decide which prisoners could go home and which ones were not eligible for repatriation under the exchange plan.
Iran agreed to a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire in the Persian Gulf war Aug. 20. But talks since that date have been stalled over a territorial dispute and neither nation has withdrawn forces to internationally recognized boundaries nor agreed to an exchange of all prisoners, estimated at about 100,000.