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(AP) With waves of warplanes and helicopters roaring overhead, U.S. forces battled into Saddam Hussein's birthplace of Tikrit on Monday after encountering only sporadic resistance on early forays into the city. South of the city, jubilant Marines spirited to safety seven missing American soldiers who had been shuttled from one Iraqi jailer to another to keep ahead of advancing troops.
Deliverance came as the prisoners' hopes of rescue were dwindling after three weeks of captivity. "I was getting to the point where I believed they would have killed us," said Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso, Texas, who had been shot with a single bullet that went through both her feet.
Marines assembled on Tikrit's outskirts and sent units in and out of the city on Sunday, drawing occasional small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, not the intense battle that once seemed likely there. Early Monday, another Marine force began moving on the city, said Matthew Fisher, a reporter for Canada's National Post covering the Marines, told CNN.
Marine Capt. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said American troops were in the city and "it's a battle." Tikrit 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 rescued from a house south of Tikrit when Marines kicked in the door and shouted: "If you're an American, stand up!"
"We stood up and they hustled us out of there," said Pfc. Patrick Miller, of Park City, Kan. There were conflicting reports on how the Marines learned of the prisoners' whereabouts; by some accounts their location was revealed by Iraqi soldiers whose leaders had abandoned them.
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 prisoners gave an account of their capture and captivity to reporters from The Washington Post and The Miami Herald who were on the flight.
The sight of their loved ones, bedraggled in their pajama-like POW garb, electrified families and communities back home.
"It's him, and I'm just so happy that I could kiss the world!" Ron Young Sr. of Lithia Springs, Ga., said after spotting son Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, a helicopter pilot, in choppy video of the free POWs.
The prisoners, held in a Baghdad prison for about the first two weeks, told of being beaten when captured and interrogated while blindfolded, but said their treatment improved as time went on.
U.S. officials, trying to determine whether the vanished Iraqi president is dead, said forensics experts had DNA samples that could be used to match any remains of Saddam found at sites where bomb and missile attacks could 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 H. 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.
The rescued prisoners included five members of the 507th Maintenance Company convoy who were ambushed March 23 and the two Apache crewmen captured a day later.
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 Sunday and had to relay the sad news that the sergeant's sister, Mary, 29, had died two weeks ago from a neurological disorder after two months in a coma.
There are still four Americans listed as missing in Iraq.
The seven recovered Sunday were in pajama-like prison outfits or similar clothing; 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 her gunshot wounds.
Young and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., were shot down in their helicopter south of Baghdad. The two jumped into a canal and swam a quarter mile, but were captured and beaten by farmers when they tried to run for cover in some trees.
The other recovered POWs were Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M., shot twice in the ribs and once in the buttocks; 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 Sunday 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 Sunday. 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.
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.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)