NEW YORK, OCT. 24 -- Five weary, pale but obviously delighted American men arrived back on U.S. soil here tonight, ending months of what they described as fearful captivity inside Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Arriving about 9:30 p.m. aboard a regularly scheduled Royal Jordanian airliner as the first group of 14 American hostages the Iraqi president released yesterday, they described a grim, joyless existence filled with anxiety but said food and other essentials of life seemed plentiful there.
"I'm not a politician and I can't tell you exactly how the embargo is working," said Jack Frazier, 48, a construction supervisor from Santa Ana, Calif., in response to questions about whether the American-led embargo appeared to be making an impact on Iraq. "But we had three solid meals a day and it looked like everyone else did as well."
The five arrived only 24 hours after being released by Saddam, on the same night that 33 Britons and more than 300 Frenchmen were also given permission to leave the embattled country. The other nine Americans are scheduled to arrive today at Dulles International Airport in Washington.
The releases have been portrayed by Iraq as goodwill efforts, and most of those who arrived here today had medical problems that require special attention.
Happy relatives popped champagne corks in the parking lot of John F. Kennedy International Airport as hundreds of reporters and photographers begged the former hostages to speak about their captivity.
Some refused on grounds that they didn't want to say anything that could compromise the safety of those who remain in Iraq.
"I'm glad to be here and I'm looking forward to the arrival of everyone who we left behind," said Marine Sgt. Mark Ward of Belford, N.J. When asked to comment on the conditions of his captivity, he replied simply, "I cannot." Then he got into a massive white stretch limousine with a yellow ribbon tied around one of its three radio antennas and was driven off.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III told congressional leaders in a private briefing yesterday that Saddam has been suggesting to some world leaders that he would release their hostages if they "come visit and have their picture taken" in Baghdad, according to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who attended the meeting.
Baker told the lawmakers that Saddam had targeted Canada and Germany, and characterized his efforts as "trying to break down the alliance against him," Aspin said. He said Baker also reported "how inhumanely Saddam Hussein is treating all the hostages."
None of the five men released were among the hostages the Iraqis have used as human shields. They lived in U.S.-provided "safe houses," and all had registered with the government of Iraq, according to one of them, Loyd Graham, of Houston. They said they had heard reports of serious incidents involving Iraqi guards and Western prisoners, but had not seen any firsthand. They added that rumors swept Baghdad daily and that it was hard to separate truth from fiction.
Those who agreed to speak to reporters described their time in the country as painful and debilitating.
"Your mind is your worst enemy," said John Thompson, an engineer. "The days run together and you create your own worst scenario for how it will end."
Frazier said he wanted to make sure people knew that many Americans were still held as shields at military installations and other important Iraqi centers. He also said he hoped the release of a few hostages will not cause Americans to forget how many are left in the country and how fearful they are that they might not get out.
"I have been a lot of places and done many things in my life," Frazier said. "But I have to tell you the most traumatic thing I have ever done was get in that car yesterday and drive away from my friends. That is something I will never forget."
Staff writer Molly Moore contributed to this report from Washington.