U.S. Marines advancing today toward Tikrit, the ancestral hometown of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, rescued seven American soldiers being held captive by Iraqi forces north of Baghdad, Marine officers said.
The rescued prisoners were reported in good condition, although three had suffered gunshot wounds, the officers said. The soldiers were flown to an airbase southeast of Baghdad and then on to Kuwait where they received medical attention, showers, fresh clothes and food.
"Today is a great day for the families, comrades, love ones of the seven missing in action," President Bush said during a brief, unscheduled news conference at the White House today. "I'm really pleased."
The Marines discovered the prisoners near the town of Samarrah, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, while moving toward Tikrit. As the Marines' Task Force Tripoli approached Samarrah, forces still loyal to Hussein fled the building where the Americans were being held.
"The guards evidently were deserted by their officers, and the guards themselves brought the prisoners of war to the Marines," said Lt. Col. Nick Morano, senior watch commander at Marine headquarters southeast of Baghdad. "All the soldiers are in good condition. A couple of them have wounds, but they're okay."
The seven Army soldiers were captured March 23 and 24. The U.S. Central Command today identified two of the soldiers as Army servicemen who were believed captured early in the morning of March 24 when their AH-64A Apache Longbow attack helicopter was shot down by Iraqis during a predawn airstrike near Najaf. They are Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26 of Atlanta.
And the other five identified by U.S. Central Command were part of the 507th Maintenance Company convoy that was ambushed in the southern city of Nasiriyah on March 23. They are Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas; Spc. Joseph Neal Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; Spc. Shoshana N. Johnson, 30, of El Paso, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Wayne Miller, 23, of Walter, Kansas; Sgt. James J. Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, N.J.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this morning on NBC's Meet the Press that "they're in good shape. We're delighted."
The soldiers spoke to correspondents with The Washington Post and Miami Herald on the C-130 transport airplane on the way from Iraq to Kuwait.
"I'm happy I'm alive," said Hudson, whose wife, Natalie and 5-year-old daughter Cameron, are waiting for him in El Paso, Tex. "Today is the second happiest day of my life next to my daughter's birth."
"We feel like we won the lottery of life," said Young, who is divorced but has a 9-month-old son, Jonathan.
"I can't explain it," said Miller. "I don't think there's any way I can probably explain the last 21 days."
As the plane touched down in Kuwait, an airman announced, "Welcome to Kuwait!" and everyone cheered. Some of the prisoners could not hold back their tears as they absorbed the fact that they had survived. They shook the hands of everyone they saw and hugged many of them, including complete strangers.
As they arrived in Kuwait, Williams shouted at the Marines who had rescued them and accompanied them back to Kuwait, "Don't leave us!" Johnson, with bullet wounds in both feet (the same bullet went through both), needed help, but the others walked on their own power.
Another soldier taken prisoner during that ambush, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was rescued during a subsequent commando raid in Nasiriyah. Lynch and other wounded soldiers arrived Saturday in the United States and were admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
"She [Lynch] seems to be in good spirits," said Major Gen. Kevin Kiley, a physician and commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Kiley said that when he told Lynch that he was glad to have her at Walter Reed, she said: "I'm glad to be here, too, sir."
Tikrit is Focus of U.S. Forces
Twenty-five days into the war, Tikrit is the last city of any size suspected of harboring Hussein loyalists, although U.S. military officers say the numbers involved are uncertain.
Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said this morning in an interview on CNN that "we have American forces in Tikrit right now. When last I checked this force was moving on Tikrit and there was not any resistance. I think we would be premature to say well, gosh, it's all done, it's all finished." Later in the day there were some reports of U.S. troops engaged in heavy fighting on the southern outskirts of Tikrit.
U.S.-led forces captured Hussein's half brother in northern Iraq today, a U.S. official said Sunday. Watban Ibrahim Hasan, an adviser to the Iraqi president, was planning to cross the border to Syria, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Associated Press. He was apprehended in the Mosul area in recent days, the official said.
Hussein viewed him as a threat and kept a close watch on him, the official said. Watban was dismissed as Iraq's interior minister in 1995. Saddam's elder son, Uday, is reported to have shot him about that time, but Watban remained a presidential adviser. Watban was the five of spades in the most-wanted list, which is in the form of a deck of cards, issued by the U.S. military. It was distributed to thousands of U.S. troops in the field to help find senior members of the Hussein government.
The Marine task force had been moving north to join in an effort to squeeze and eventually eliminate the last vestiges of Hussein's once-powerful Baath Party government, U.S. officials said. A U.S. Central Command spokesman said Saturday that the Marines would "commence ground operations [against] suspected Iraqi military strongholds" north of Baghdad, and officials in Washington made it clear the target was the Tikrit region, about 90 miles north of the capital. The task force commander, Brig. Gen. John Kelly, was quoted as saying he was "moving northward out of Baghdad" and would give a chance to "anyone who wants to surrender" instead of being destroyed.
With fighting winding down elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. forces moved this weekend to stabilize the war-torn country, which has been beset by looting and lawlessness in recent days. Several news wire reports indicated that while some sense of normalcy returned to parts of Baghdad on Sunday, there continued to be looting in some parts of the city.
Bush appeared impatient with suggestions that the U.S. was doing little to stop the lawlessness.
"The statue [of the Iraqi president] went down on Wednesday, and the headlines start to read 'disorder,'" Bush said. "Well, no kidding! It's chaotic because Saddam Hussein created the conditions for chaos. . . . It'll take a while to restore order out of the chaos, but we will."
The Associated Press reported that a team of 32 U.S. Army engineers flew into Baghdad on Sunday to help restore electricity. Another project is to establish joint patrols by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police, aimed at curbing the rampant looting that has wracked Baghdad, Mosul and other cities.
In Baghdad, the looting spread Sunday to a vast stretch of army barracks and warehouses on the western outskirts. Looters using trucks and horse-drawn carts stole toilets, bathtubs, sinks and construction materials from one of the largest warehouses. Nearer the city center, an institute of military studies was looted and gutted by fire.
U.S. Army troops guarded banks and hospitals, shops began to open, and hundreds of cars loaded with personal belongings entered from the west, a sign that people who fled the fighting were coming home. And while some buses were running, some double-decker buses had been commandeered by looters to ferry their plunder back home.
Marines were fanning through neighborhoods of northeast Baghdad, finding large caches of weapons and ammunition in schools, in parked trucks, even in open fields where children play.
The State Department announced it will send two dozen police officers and other law enforcement officials to help organize an Iraqi police system to restore order. Getting a jump on the process, police officers in Baghdad met with U.S. military officers in an effort to organize redeployment of normal Iraqi police forces untainted by association with the abuses of Hussein's three-decade rule.
Col. Mohammed Zaki, an Iraqi police officer, told reporters that U.S. Marines and Iraqi police will begin joint patrols within a few days in the capital. Marine civil affairs officers agreed that joint patrols would be a good idea, but they did not predict when they could start.
Maj. Frank Simone, one of the civil affairs officers, told the Associated Press that the difficulty lies in distinguishing between police officers who could present a danger to U.S. forces -- by informing on them to die-hard Hussein loyalists -- and others who could be useful in meeting residents' pleas for increased security and a resumption of municipal functions.
"Most of the top people, the ones we think are Baath officials, the ones that fled, are guys that we don't want to come back," he said. "But a lot of the ones that stayed are good guys."
Despite the cries for a return to normalcy, an Army unit reported a sharp clash with Iraqi irregulars in the western part of Baghdad, in which officers said about 20 Iraqi militiamen were killed and no U.S. soldiers were lost. But a Marine guarding a hospital on the eastern side of the Tigris River was shot and killed when two Syrian men posing as gardeners sneaked up, pulled out a concealed gun and opened fire at point-blank range. Other Marines at the checkpoint returned fire, killing one of the assailants and injuring the other, officers reported.
At another checkpoint, Marines fired at a vehicle that ignored repeated signals to stop, killing one occupant and injuring another, officers here at headquarters said. Because of several suicide bombings, soldiers and Marines have received orders to be extremely vigilant against oncoming Iraqi vehicles.
U.S. military officers said troops in the arid western stretches of Iraq stopped a bus apparently heading for Syria and found 59 men carrying $630,000 and letters promising rewards for those who killed U.S. soldiers. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, briefing reporters at the Central Command's regional headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said the money was in $100 bills but the nationality of the men and the source of the letters were unclear.
Officials voiced suspicion that the 59 were among several thousand non-Iraqi Arabs who volunteered to come to Iraq and help Hussein's forces defend against the U.S.-British invasion. U.S. officers have reported encountering non-Iraqi fighters for the last several days in Baghdad.
Syria Put On Notice Again
U.S. officials in Washington have accused the Syrian government of permitting the Arab volunteers to enter Iraq through Syria and of aiding Hussein's forces by shipping night-vision goggles to them. But Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa disputed those charges Saturday, describing them as "baseless allegations."
Rumsfeld repeated those allegations on Sunday. He said night-vision goggles had been found in Iraq. And asked on "Meet the Press" if senior Iraqi leaders had fled to Syria, Rumsfeld replied: "No question that they did. Absolutely." But he declined to specify which leaders the administration believes are in Syria.
At the White House today, Bush was asked by a reporter if Syria faced a military attack, and the president replied: "No. Syria just needs to cooperate with us."
On "Meet the Press," Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha responded angrily charges that his country was harboring Iraqi officials, while acknowledging that some of those officials might have been able to slip into Syria, which has liberal border control policies for people from other Arab countries.
"It's about a diversion of attention," Moustapha said. "The human catastrophes [caused by the war] are embarrassing lots of people in this administration, and the only way to deal with them is to divert attention."
Staff writer Jonathan Finer in Baghdad contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.