Marines free 7 American POWs

Iraqis surrender, lead U.S. troops to soldiers, who are in good condition

Allied forces move into Tikrit

Syria accused of having chemical arms, harboring Hussein's party members

War in Iraq

April 14, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. Marines advancing on the final Iraqi stronghold of Tikrit yesterday rescued seven bedraggled but healthy American prisoners of war, flying them to safety more than three weeks after they were captured by enemy forces.

The Marines found the POWs about five miles south of Tikrit, after Iraqi soldiers who had been guarding the prisoners surrendered and led them to the prisoners. The POWs included two helicopter crewmen and five members of an Army maintenance company that had been ambushed near the city of Nasiriyah.

All seven POWs had been shown on Iraqi television shortly after their capture. Three had suffered gunshot wounds, but all were reported to be in relatively good condition.

Marines battled with the scattered defenders of President Saddam Hussein's hometown early today as U.S. artillery and warplanes tried to wear down any attempt at a last stand at the Iraqi leader's power base.

U.S. forces suspected about 2,500 die-hards of the Republican Guard and the paramilitary fedayeen - and possibly officials from Hussein's regime - were holed up in Tikrit, a reporter for Canada's National Post covering the Marines told CNN.

Marine Capt. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for Central Command in Qatar, said U.S. troops were in the city, adding: "It's a battle."

Tribal leaders inside the city were reportedly seeking to negotiate a surrender, hoping to end the aerial bombardment that has shaken the city in the past few days.

As their forces moved into Tikrit, American officials began describing the war yesterday as more of a policing effort than a traditional military campaign.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of forces in the Persian Gulf region, said American and British troops were no longer fighting an organized enemy, and that the war would soon shift into a peacekeeping phase as they seek "pockets" of paramilitary fighters intent on resisting "to their last breath."

The Bush administration, meanwhile, escalated its criticism of neighboring Syria. It accused that country of harboring members of Hussein's regime and of possessing the same type of chemical weapons that drew the United States into war with Iraq.

Their comments were the harshest yet that U.S. officials have directed at Iraq's western neighbor since the conflict with Iraq began. The administration has also accused Syria of funneling military supplies and foreign fighters into Iraq during the war.

"I think that we believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Bush told reporters on the White House lawn upon his return from Camp David. "First things first. We're here in Iraq now. And the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation. And I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation."

Allied control

Franks said that American and British forces control most of Iraq's militarily significant regions and that the remaining Iraqi troops are largely choosing to surrender and cooperate. Asked how many cities and towns are still under the control of the Iraqi government, Franks responded, "Actually, I don't know of any."

"In many cases, we have simply bypassed villages and towns and so forth, and now we will go to each and every one of them and be sure that we don't have some last small stronghold in that country," he said in a television interview.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that Iraqi citizens and soldiers have become increasingly cooperative, helping to locate Baath Party members, Fedayeen Saddam fighters and supplies of Iraqi weapons.

"Every hour that goes by," Rumsfeld said, "it's getting better and more peaceful and more orderly in that country."

Moving in

Besides containing the last holdouts of Iraq's organized military, Tikrit is thought to harbor paramilitary fighters and some of the foreign fighters who entered Iraq after the war began, offering to wage suicide strikes against American and British troops.

Yesterday, journalists who entered Tikrit, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, said the city seemed mostly deserted, and that empty tanks and vehicles were scattered throughout military facilities that line the highway into town.

Marines assembled on the outskirts of Tikrit drew occasional fire from rifles and rocket-propelled grenades yesterday, not the intense battle that some had feared. The forces did not try to occupy Tikrit, choosing instead to enter with small patrols to gauge the resistance, Pentagon officials said.

The Iraqi soldiers who released the American POWs yesterday had decided to surrender after their officers abandoned them in the face of the Marines' advance toward Tikrit, according to a Marine Corps spokesman.

`Lottery of life'

Dressed in an assortment of shorts and striped pajamas, the soldiers were whisked back to a Marine Corps base and then flown to Kuwait on a C-130 transport plane, speaking with reporters for The Washington Post and Miami Herald during the flight.

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