U.S. forces met sporadic resistance Sunday in their move on Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, after spiriting to safety seven missing American soldiers unexpectedly released by a leaderless band of Iraqi troops.

Shabina Khatri
Former POW Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, center, is escorted by U.S. soldiers to a waiting transport plane yesterday. Johnson was with the 507th Maintenance Company that was ambushed March 23rd in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

Marines assembled on Tikrit’s outskirts and sent units in and out of the city, drawing occasional small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, not the intense battle that once seemed likely there. Even so, U.S. forces did not try to occupy Tikrit right away, Pentagon officials said.

The city is the last center of Saddam loyalists known to the allies, who are already turning their attention to the task of scouring towns they skipped in the race to Baghdad.

“We have simply bypassed villages and towns and so forth,” said Gen. Tommy Franks, the war commander. “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.”

Three weeks after Iraqis seized them and put them on TV, the seven ex-POWs were escorted to a Marine unit on the road to Tikrit by a group of Iraqi soldiers who had given up the fight and been abandoned by their leaders.

The seven walked – some ran – into a transport plane that flew them to Kuwait for checkups, treatment for those who needed it, and briefings. The sight of their loved ones, bedraggled in their pajama-like POW garb, electrified families and communities back home.

U.S. officials, trying to determine whether the vanished Iraqi president is dead, said forensics experts had samples of Saddam’s DNA and would try to find a match from bodies recovered in the bomb and missile attacks most likely to have killed him.

And on the war’s other deep puzzle, the location of any Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, U.S. forces reported they held a variety of Iraqi officials, including a half brother of Saddam, who might have useful information.

Other figures from the Saddam era have certainly escaped into Syria on Iraq’s western border, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.

President Bush warned that must not continue. “They just need to cooperate,” he said.

Syria’s deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, denied his country was taking in Iraqis and said it was America’s job to monitor Iraq’s western border.

Franks said he expects to visit U.S.-occupied Baghdad within a week, although not in the style of a conquering commander. He said he would travel “with a very small staff for the purpose of seeing my people” in a low-key meeting.

He said Iraqis were coming forward in great numbers to tell soldiers where to find Saddam loyalists, arms caches and leads on chemical, biological and nuclear-weapons programs.

One example of cooperation stood out above all others yesterday – the delivery of the seven POWs into U.S. hands.

Capt. David Romley said Marines were met by Iraqi soldiers north of Samarra who approached the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Company and had the Americans with them.

Another spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Capt. Neil Murphy, said those Iraqis had been abandoned by their officers and “realizing that it was the right thing to do, they brought these guys back.”

Two helicopter crewmen and five members of the 507th Maintenance Company convoy who were ambushed March 23 were let go. Two had gunshot wounds, Franks said. They were found a day after Pvt. Jessica Lynch, their POW comrade rescued in a commando raid, returned to the United States for further treatment of her many injuries.

In Pennsauken, N.J., the parents of Sgt. James Riley, 31, had just returned from church services when they heard their son had been found.

“It’s just an emotional roller coaster, and we’re just happy he’s safe,” said his mother, Jane. She spoke with her son by phone later yesterday and relayed news that the sergeant’s sister, Mary, 29, had died two weeks ago from a neurological disorder after two months in a coma.

Before yesterday, 12 soldiers had been listed as POWs or missing in action.

The seven recovered yesterday were in pajama-like prison outfits or similar clothing; Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, was back in khakis as she was escorted to the plane, clutching the purple and white clothing she’d been found in, and bandaged from an ankle gunshot wound.

Young and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., were shot down in their Apache helicopter south of Baghdad on March 23.

The other recovered POWs were Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, of Park City, Kan.; and Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, who had been shot in the elbow.

Allied forces pressed their hunt for senior figures from the vanquished Saddam era.

U.S. officials said yesterday that Watban Ibrahim Hasan, an adviser and half brother of Saddam, was recently picked up en route to Syria. Saddam’s science adviser surrendered Saturday.

Rumsfeld said he hoped Syria would not become a “haven for war criminals or terrorists.” Syrians have accounted for the largest share of foreign fighters that U.S. troops have faced in Baghdad over the past 24 hours, he said.

With U.S. troops guarding banks and hospitals, parts of Baghdad finally began to return to normal yesterday. Shops reopened, traffic snarled and people who had fled the fighting began streaming home.

But looting, persistent for days, spread to a vast stretch of army barracks and warehouses on the western outskirts. Thieves 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.

Marines engaged in a firefight with snipers late yesterday outside the city’s Palestine Hotel, where many international journalists are staying. Several men were taken into custody.

U.S. troops and Iraqi police are working on setting up joint patrols to bring order back to Baghdad and other cities where lawlessness has been rampant. A team of 32 U.S. Army engineers flew into Baghdad to help restore electricity.

Marines fanned through neighborhoods of northeast Baghdad, finding large caches of weapons and ammunition in schools, in parked trucks, even in open fields where children play.

“Get this stuff out,” said resident Achmad Idan, 41. He was standing next to a blue truck in which anti-tank rounds were discovered.

In one upscale neighborhood, Marines and special forces found two short-range Frog-7 missiles – each capable of carrying 25 gallons of chemical agents. One, on its mobile transporter/launcher, was found in a nursery among potted plants and palm trees; the second was found 500 yards away in a trailer in front of a University of Baghdad building.

In Mosul, the biggest city in the north, a U.S. Special Forces soldier was shot and wounded yesterday while on a security patrol.

The American war effort is being reinforced, advance elements of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division entered southern Iraq late yesterday meeting no resistance.

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