CAMP BUCCA, Iraq – Chanting "Saddam no, Bush yes," some 200 Iraqi prisoners of war were let go Sunday at the coalition's main internment camp in the desert near the southern port of Umm Qasr (search).
The men, many of them barefooted, shook hands with the American soldiers guarding the camp before boarding buses and trucks to be driven to nearby Basra, southern Iraq's largest city.
Their departure brought to 700 the number of POWs released since Friday, said Maj. Stacy Garrity of the U.S. Army's 800th Military Police Brigade, which runs the camp. Around 5,800 more prisoners, including some from Jordan and Syria, await screening and possible release, she said.
"Probably half of the camp will be gone in the next week and a half," said Garrity, who is from Athens, Pa.
Wearing a towel on his head as protection from the scorching heat and blowing sand, one smiling POW, Mahdi Saleh, told The Associated Press: "My mother will die when she sees me."
It may take a while. Once in Basra, the penniless Saleh will have to find transportation home to Mosul, a city some 500 miles away in northern Iraq.
Saleh, a junior Iraqi army officer who is the father of four, said he was taken prisoner at the Qadisiya Dam at the beginning of the war that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein (search).
"I gave orders to my five men not to fight and we surrendered," he said, his eyes red from the sand. "Americans were coming for our own good. ... What has Saddam done for us? I'm 30 and I haven't enjoyed life -- no justice, no piece of land, no car."
Before boarding the buses and trucks, the freed POWs in ragged clothes or blue jumpsuits were each handed cigarettes from a yellow bucket and a package containing sugar, rice, tea and cooking oil provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (search).
The men gave thumbs-up signs and peppered journalists with questions: "No more Saddam statues?" "No more military service?" "No more executions?"
Hussam Abbas, from Basra, said all he had known in his 25 years were prisons and military service. "I gave myself in so that I would have a chance to be evacuated and not to come back to Iraq," he said. "But now, I am happy. We got rid of Saddam who oppressed us."
Hanging out a bus window, Mussalam Hassan, 22, shouted happily: "We did not fire a single shot!" He said he was taken prisoner in Rumeila on March 21, the second day of the war.
As the men were being processed for release, a helicopter flew in with a 9-year-old Iraqi girl who had been treated for a heart problem on the USS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship. There was no immediate report of her condition, but she walked on her own.
Her family brought the girl to Camp Bucca after the war started asking for medical help. Her father was given a job at the post, and he and the rest of the family were allowed to live here.
The freed POWs said they were treated well by their captors. Many shook hands with coalition soldiers before being driven away.
"When we heard Americans entered Iraq, we knew it was the end of Saddam," said Falih Rahim, 35, from Baghdad. He said he couldn't wait to see his three children and go back to his job as a cart driver.
Junior officer Jawad Obaid, who said he surrendered March 21 in response to leaflets dropped by coalition planes, said he was praying he would find his family in Basra unharmed.
He was hopes for a new Iraq without poverty. "Our house in Basra still has a tin roof," he said, holding a blanket provided by the U.S. military.
Before Atheer Abdul-Karim, 25, joined his fellow Iraqis in singing a folk song on board a departing bus, he shouted out: "They paid us 17,000 (Iraqi dinars a month) to fight Americans. I would have killed Saddam for one dollar."