U.S. Marines today rescued seven American soldiers held captive by Iraqi forces for the last three weeks and flew them to safety, bringing a successful end to a prisoner drama that had consumed senior military officers.
A light armored detachment of Marines on its way north to clear away holdouts in Tikrit, former president Saddam Hussein's ancestral home town, burst in on the captured U.S. soldiers in a private house after being tipped off by local Iraqis. The seven were all in good condition, although three were recovering from bullet wounds suffered during their capture.
"We feel like we won the lottery of life," Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young, 26, a helicopter pilot from suburban Atlanta held since March 24, said in exultation as he was ferried to Kuwait aboard a C-130 Hercules transport plane.
The news exhilarated Army and Marine officers in Iraq and political leaders in Washington. "Today is a great day for the families, comrades, loved ones of the seven missing in action who are free," President Bush said during a brief, unscheduled talk with reporters at the White House. "I'm really pleased."
Young's fellow AH-64D Apache Longbow pilot, Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, 31, of Fort Hood, Tex., was also found today.
The other recovered soldiers were from the Army's 507th Maintenance Company convoy that was ambushed in the southern crossroads city of Nasiriyah on March 23: Sgt. James Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, N.J.; Spec. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso; Spec. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; Spec. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Tex.; and Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of suburban Wichita.
Their colleague, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, 19, of Palestine, W.Va., was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in a raid April 2.
The recovery of the seven prisoners came as a column of Marines stabbed into the southern outskirts of Tikrit, pounding away at paramilitary forces from the air and ground to seize control of the last stronghold outside U.S. or British control. Despite the battle with the irregulars, reports from within the city 90 miles north of Baghdad indicated that most organized military forces had fled and that tribal leaders wanted to surrender to U.S. commanders.
[Early Monday, the Reuters news agency, citing a report from the al-Jazeera satellite television network, reported that Marines had moved into the center of Tikrit, taking up positions in the city's main square.]
The Marines, organized in Task Force Tripoli, moved toward Tikrit after receiving orders to bring a swift and decisive end to any remaining organized opposition. "Movement up is faster than we thought," said Col. Larry Brown, the operations chief for the Marines in Iraq. "Resistance is light."
Importance of Tikrit
Capturing Tikrit could close out large-scale military operations in Iraq and turn the attention of U.S. forces more fully to establishing security, repairing infrastructure and rebuilding a working administration after the fall of Hussein's Baath Party government. It also would free U.S. troops to intensify their search for weapons of mass destruction and for Hussein and his top lieutenants, most of whom remain unaccounted for.
Some U.S. officials say they believe Hussein was killed in an airstrike days before U.S. forces rolled into Baghdad. Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the overall commander of U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf region, said on CNN's "Late Edition" that U.S. authorities possessed a DNA sample of Hussein to help in an eventual identification.
U.S. officials disclosed that one top Hussein associate had been captured trying to flee to Syria. Watban Ibrahim Hasan, a half-brother of the ousted president, was in U.S. custody, the officials said. His apparent flight toward Syria served to escalate U.S. complaints about the government in Damascus.
Bush charged that Syria has chemical weapons and has been sheltering fugitives from Hussein's fallen government. "We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Bush told reporters. "Each situation will require a different response and, of course . . . first things first. We're in Iraq now, and the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation."
Bush demanded that Syria "not harbor any Baathists, any military officials, any of the people who need to be held to account" for their actions in Iraq.
In response, a Syrian official accused Bush of trying to distract from the looting and chaos brought on by his military campaign in Iraq. "It's been a campaign of disinformation and misinformation . . . about Syria since even before the war started," Imad Moustapha, deputy chief of mission in Washington, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
While full-scale war appeared to be abating, small-scale attacks on U.S. forces persisted. Sixteen U.S. soldiers were wounded when a grenade was thrown into a compound in the southern Baghdad suburb of Mahmidiyah.
A contingent from the 101st Airborne Division was clearing a former police headquarters and emerging from the compound when an unknown assailant lobbed the grenade over a wall, according to Brig. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley. Four soldiers were flown by helicopter to a medical facility while two others were evacuated by land.
Two soldiers suffered serious injuries, one to the eye and one to the groin, according to the division surgeon, Lt. Col. Richard Thomas.
Despite the incident, tentative signs emerged that the chaos that has engulfed Baghdad was easing somewhat. A few shops opened, and the U.S. military reported no significant exchanges of fire.
'Today Is More Normal'
"Today is more normal than yesterday, and the day before yesterday," said Effir Amrel, 21, a barber whose shop opened for the first time since Hussein's rule collapsed Wednesday. On the street around him in the middle-class neighborhood of Karadeh, a few shops sold fruit, nuts and candy. Two restaurants did a brisk business in kebabs.
Cars piled with mattresses and blankets filled roads into the city, signaling the return of families that had fled during the bombing.
Still, signs of crisis remained everywhere. The few shops that were open had doubled or tripled prices on their scarce goods. One young vendor selling eggs from a sidewalk stand said the price had jumped 100 percent, with each 30-egg tray costing 5,000 dinars, or roughly $2, a hefty sum for workers who take home $15 a month. Two pounds of oranges at a nearby produce stand fetched 2,500 dinars, or about a dollar, three times the prewar price.
Rasul Majid, 18, the egg vendor, defended the higher prices, saying it was nearly impossible to bring goods into the city. "The road is closed, and there's no electricity," he said.
Shop owners said they would be hard-pressed to restock their shelves, because warehouses had been looted and refrigerated goods had spoiled without power. With so little to buy, customers plunked down their money at the produce stand for soft, over-ripe tomatoes and pocked apples. Long lines formed outside the few bakeries making bread.
As the burning and looting appeared to be winding down, a few columns of smoke rose above the city, as the capital's arts academy and the Ministry of Trade burned. At mosques, religious leaders have started warning worshipers that looting is wrong and should be stopped. U.S. soldiers and Marines have stepped up patrols to discourage pillaging.
Scores of protesters gathered this afternoon outside the downtown Palestine Hotel, full of foreign journalists, demanding resumption of electrical and water service and security from looters. All around the city, residents complained about how the war and its aftermath had brought life to a standstill.
"I cry for my country -- without electricity, without food. If we want to buy meat, there are no refrigerators," said Jamal Ibrahim, 46, a chemical engineer.
A Little Luck
While U.S. commanders focused on ways to improve living conditions, the recovery of the American POWs captured much of their attention. In the three weeks since the soldiers were taken prisoner, U.S. forces had engaged in a painstaking, if until now fruitless, hunt in hopes of launching a commando raid to save them, as they did for Lynch.
Instead, today's rescue appeared to be serendipity. As the Marines bound for Tikrit approached the small town of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad, Iraqis informed them that U.S. soldiers were being held in a nearby house from which the top-ranking officials had fled. One of the Marines who burst into the house to find the prisoners said the tip came from a civilian. Senior officers, however, said it came from police officers assigned to keep custody of the Americans after their superiors fled the approaching Marines.
"The guards evidently were deserted by their officers, and the guards themselves brought the prisoners of war to the [attention of the] Marines," said Lt. Col. Nick Morano, senior watch commander at Marine headquarters in Iraq. "All the soldiers are in good condition. A couple of them have wounds, but they're okay."
The rescue prompted a wave of emotion at U.S. military installations around Iraq. When Morano announced it at the Marine headquarters operations center, applause broke out. Other Marine officers who later met the prisoners as they were flown by helicopter to an airfield at Numaniyah, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, hugged the soldiers as they stepped off gingerly and were rushed onto a waiting C-130 to be taken to Kuwait.
The freed prisoners appeared tentative as they emerged, some still in the yellow or blue striped prison pajamas the Iraqis forced them to wear, others having switched into Marine jumpsuits or other clothes. The three recovering from gunshot wounds -- Johnson, Hudson and Hernandez -- all underwent surgery by Iraqi doctors but were to be seen by U.S. physicians to evaluate their condition.
All moved under their own power except Johnson, who was shot in both feet and required help walking. Though they were kicked and beaten when first apprehended, the soldiers reported little physical abuse after that at the hands of their captors.
"I'm happy I'm alive," said Hudson, whose wife, Natalie, and 5-year-old daughter, Cameron, were waiting for him in El Paso. "Today is the second-happiest day of my life, next to my daughter's birth."
As their plane touched down in Kuwait, an airman announced, "Welcome to Kuwait!" and everyone whooped and cheered. Some of the prisoners could not hold back their tears. They shook the hands of everyone they saw and begged their Marine escorts to come with them.
"Don't leave us!" Williams shouted at them plaintively over the roar of the C-130 engine.
Nasiriyah, the city 100 miles north of Kuwait where five of the seven were captured, was briefly the turkey shoot of the war, nicknamed "Ambush Alley" by the troops who had to make their way through it. Just north of there, in the town of Shatrah, residents told U.S. Special Forces troops today that at least four American soldiers were held in a private home in the town and the corpse of another was dragged through the streets behind a donkey and cart.
The only evidence found at the house was a scarf knotted like a handcuff. A local doctor told the troops that he washed the body of the dead American and that Iraqi forces buried him in a shallow grave at a garbage dump. Other Americans recovered the body a week ago, the doctor said.
His account corresponds to the case of a Marine who fell out of a vehicle that was attacked in the early days of the war and was believed to have been killed. Marine officers said they found his body in Shatrah about a week ago, but were never able to confirm that his body was paraded through the streets.
For the soldiers rescued today, it was becoming increasingly clear how close they came to a similar fate. "It hasn't sunk in completely yet, sir," said Riley, hewing to military protocol even when talking with a journalist.
But he rejected the notion that he and his colleagues did anything extraordinary. "We're not heroes, sir," he insisted. "We're not the heroes. The heroes are the ones who came and got us. All the people who have been fighting all the way through the conflict and fought to come get us. The people who died."
Sheridan reported from Baghdad. Correspondents Rick Atkinson and Peter Finn with U.S. forces in Iraq and staff writer Terry M. Neal in Washington contributed to this report.