OPRYLAND CAMP, SAUDI ARABIA, FEB. 15 -- When Sgt. Alan Jones was helping to process some of the first Iraqi prisoners of war delivered to this camp last month, his eyes met the gaze of a young man who looked familiar. Both gave a start of recognition.

"I know you. Where have we met?" the Iraqi prisoner said in fluent English, Jones recalled.

It turned out that the 24-year-old Iraqi had lived in Wheeling, Ill., a Chicago suburb where Jones belonged to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Jones said he must have passed the Iraqi often on the street.

The Iraqi, a former engineering student in Chicago whose name was withheld by U.S. authorities, had applied for permanent U.S. residency, but was visiting his father in Iraq on Aug. 2 when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Subsequently drafted, the former student was among 51 Iraqis captured Jan. 24 on Qurah Island off the Kuwaiti coast by an American missile frigate.

"He asked about the Super Bowl," Jones said.

The 37-year-old federal law-enforcement officer, a reservist in the 800th Military Police Brigade, and the star-crossed Iraqi student both had a good laugh about their one-in-a-million meeting, Jones said, and the fear and tension shown by other Iraqi prisoners quickly seemed to ease.

With the war nearly a month old, the flow of Iraqi POWs to allied camps appears to be accelerating. And the camps are bracing for thousands more if a ground war begins.

Most Iraqi troops now entering the camps have braved minefields and risked execution by their own forces as deserters to cross allied lines and give themselves up.

Contrary to some earlier reports that those surrendering were acutely malnourished and infested with lice, Iraqis have arrived here in fairly good shape, military physicians said. While soldiers report meager rations in occupied Kuwait, they appear healthier than expected and far from starvation, said Maj. Andre Muellnaer, a prison camp doctor.

More than 1,200 Iraqi prisoners are held in allied EPW (Enemy Prisoner of War) camps, most of them under Saudi control. Fewer than 100 are held at this U.S. camp, well behind American lines south of the Saudi border with Kuwait.

During a visit to the camp today, reporters were not permitted to interview or photograph Iraqi prisoners in keeping with a strict interpretation of Geneva Convention rules by U.S. commanders. The prisoners generally are held here a few days after processing until they can be turned over to the Saudis.

"Many EPWs have stated that if their faces are recognized {by authorities in Iraq}, their families will be killed," said Brig. Gen. Joseph F. Conlon III, commander of the 800th Military Police Brigade. He described his charges as "a nice bunch of fellows" who are "glad to be out of the war." Conversations with prisoners show "some of them don't think that what was done in Kuwait was right," Conlon added.

Col. Larry J. Stovall, commander of this camp, said some new arrivals expressed fears of harsh treatment by Americans because of Iraqi propaganda. He said one told him he crossed over anyway because "nothing could have been worse than where I was."

Another prisoner was convinced he would be executed and repeatedly put a finger to his head as if aiming a pistol, Stovall said. He calmed down after guards showed him the camp's elaborate processing procedures, in which prisoners are searched, stripped, given showers, issued new clothes, photographed, logged into a computer system and shown to tents inside a barbed-wire enclosure surrounded by 12-foot-high sand berms and armed guards.

This complex, designed for nearly 50,000 prisoners, was thrown up in three weeks on a vast site covering more than 600 acres of desert. A similar complex farther west will be able to accommodate 50,000 more, and the military is prepared to expand prisoner capacity if necessary, Conlon said. Opryland was named after a hotel and musical theme park complex in Nashville, headquarters of the 401st Military Police Camp.