Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government this week, the International Committee of the Red Cross has lost all contact with the Iraqi officials it had been talking to about the seven American prisoners of war, the agency said yesterday.
As a result, said ICRC spokeswoman Amanda Williamson, efforts to locate and visit the POWs are stymied. "Unfortunately, we are in a very different and difficult situation in Baghdad," she said. "We won't give up, and we'll try to access other communication channels."
At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that he had no information about the prisoners, who were taken captive by Iraqi forces on March 23 and 24.
"We clearly have people dedicated to trying to find the prisoners of war, ours and others from the '91 war," said Rumsfeld. "And as we are successful in any of those things, we'll report them. Undoubtedly, there'll be embedded reporters there when they happen and will report them."
Rumsfeld said some documents have been recovered that may be helpful in the search. He said U.S. forces are also continuing "to look for people who can help us find the people we want to find."
In referring to prisoners from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Rumsfeld was apparently alluding to Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot shot down over Iraq whose body was never found and who some in the administration believe may still be alive.
After Rumsfeld's briefing, a senior military official could provide no further information. "We don't have any clue," the official said. "There's no information either way -- nothing positive, nothing negative."
Earlier this week, another official said that the Pentagon found it troubling that it had no information about the prisoners' whereabouts or status when the Iraqi government crumbled as U.S. forces moved in and occupied Baghdad. "It always worries us when we don't know what's happening," the official said. "By now, we expected the ICRC to be able to see them."
Last week, when the ICRC was still in contact with Iraqi authorities, Williamson said, the Iraqis were saying that they would grant the Red Cross access to the prisoners. "Now, unfortunately, we are in a very different and difficult situation in Baghdad," she said. "We no longer have the people in Baghdad that we used to have contact with. So, of course, that's going to restrict us in how we can proceed. We won't give up, and we'll try to access other communication channels."
Before vanishing, Williamson said, the Iraqi authorities the ICRC was dealing with never indicated where the American prisoners were being held or whom they had in custody.
Williamson said the ICRC still has a team operating inside Iraq. But "it's a very, very dangerous and chaotic situation," she said. "Our activities are virtually paralyzed, due to the virtual anarchy in the country."
The Pentagon lists five members of the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company as prisoners. Their convoy took a wrong turn near Nasiriyah on March 23 and was ambushed by Iraqi forces. The five are Army Sgt. James J. Riley of Pennsauken, N.J.; Spec. Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Tex.; Spec. Joseph N. Hudson, 23, of El Paso; Spec. Shoshana N. Johnson, 30, of El Paso; and Pfc. Patrick W. Miller, 23, of Walter, Kan.
Two other U.S. Army service members -- Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando -- were taken prisoner when their helicopter went down on March 24 over central Iraq.