WASHINGTON -- An entire division of the Iraqi army, numbering 8,000 soldiers, surrendered to coalition forces in southern Iraq Friday, Pentagon officials said.
Iraq's 51st Infantry Division surrendered as coalition forces advanced toward Basra, Iraq's second largest city. The mechanized division had about 200 tanks before the war, according to independent analysts and U.S. officials.
The 51st was one of the better equipped and trained in Iraq's regular army forces and was the key division protecting Basra, a major transportation and oil shipment hub on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that leads to the Persian Gulf.
The division also was important to Saddam Hussein's government for keeping Shiite Muslims - the majority in southern Iraq - from rebelling against Saddam's largely Sunni government.
The division was the largest single unit to surrender en masse on Friday, a day that saw hordes of Iraqi troops give themselves up - in some cases, to journalists accompanying U.S. units. U.S. forces advancing across southern Iraq often found Iraqi tanks and other weapons abandoned in the desert.
Many of the surrendering Iraqis were demoralized and poorly equipped, with some wearing T-shirts and carrying worn Kalashnikov rifles.
"I kind of felt sorry for them," said one U.S. military official in southern Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A lot of them looked hungry. They haven't been fed in a while."
The surrender of the 51st removed a major obstacle to the U.S. and British goal of securing all of southern Iraq so forces could focus on the push to Baghdad. U.S. forces also secured the port city of Umm Qasr on Friday.