WASHINGTON -- Allied soldiers who had expected to face flaming trenches and lethal mine fields in the opening hours of the ground war found they had a quite different problem on their hands when the invasion actually began: A mass of surrendering Iraqis.
After only 10 hours of battle, 5,500 Iraqis had given up. After 24 hours, that number had jumped to more than 14,000, numbers that slowed the allied advance and created logistic snarls that Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney described as "one of our biggest problems."
"They just keep coming and coming," said an amazed staff officer at 1st Marine Division headquarters. "I didn't know they had that many to give."
Pentagon officials predicted they would be handling many more prisoners of war, perhaps as many as 100,000, as the campaign continues.
"Thousands of them are coming out of their holes," said a Pentagon official in Saudi Arabia. "We just hope they don't all surrender at once."
Pentagon officials had long expected that thousands of Iraqis might surrender, and they had made elaborate preparations for such an eventuality. But they had expected most of the surrendering to come after they had surrounded large chunks of the Iraqi forces, not while they were making their initial forays across the border.
As a result, advances that were planned as lightning surprise thrusts have been slowed, at least to some extent.
"You've got to take the time to surround them, disarm them, tie them up and arrange to get someone to take custody of them," one Pentagon official said. "It's not nearly as bad as having to root them out of bunkers. But it's still a big pain."
The large numbers of POWs could quickly strain available transportation. While prisoners are usually trucked to the rear in empty supply vehicles, with these numbers some may be simply disarmed and marched to the rear, military officials said.
Indeed, by nightfall yesterday, the Marines of the 1st Division found that to be their biggest problem: finding enough buses and trucks to ferry their more than 3,200 Iraqi prisoners, including an Army general, to holding centers in Saudi Arabia. Most had surrendered without any fight.
Military officials said the prisoners would be forced to walk south if the Iraqis stage a counterattack or begin shelling the allies' forward positions.
"If we're taking Iraqi rounds, then we don't have any other choice," said Maj. Rex Forney, a deputy provost marshal of the military police for the 101st Airborne Division in northern Saudi Arabia.
One reason for the large number of POWs may be that many Iraqi troops expect better treatment from U.S. forces than they have received from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Prisoners of the U.S. troops are interned at two camps, nicknamed "Brooklyn" and "the Bronx," on the eastern and western ends, respectively, of Saudi Arabia's northern border. There the prisoners are fingerprinted, interviewed and checked by doctors.
After several weeks, the POWs will be turned over to the Saudis.