U.S. forces met sporadic resistance Sunday in their move on Tikrit, birthplace of Saddam Hussein, after spiriting to safety seven missing American soldiers who had been shuttled from one Iraqi jail 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, 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."
'Hustled us out of there'
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.
'Nobody wanted to hold us'
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 somewhat as time went on. As U.S. troops closed in on Baghdad, they said they were moved over and over to keep ahead of the advancing Americans.
"We could feel the whole thing collapsing," said Chief Warrant Officer Young, one of two Apache helicopter crewmen among the prisoners. "Nobody wanted to hold us."
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.
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. 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.
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.
As the farmers trucked them to captivity, they would stop periodically to show off their find, Williams said.
"They would stop and show all these people they had caught Americans," he said.
The other recovered POWs were Miller, Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; and Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, who had been shot in the elbow.
Returning to normal
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.
Marines engaged in a firefight with snipers late Sunday outside the city's Palestine Hotel, where many journalists are staying. Several men were taken into custody.
Key developments in Iraq on Sunday
Seven U.S. prisoners of war were unexpectedly released by Iraqi troops after 22 days of imprisonment. Officials said they were in relatively good condition.
American troops met little resistance as they pushed into Tikrit, the last stronghold of fighters loyal to President Saddam Hussein.
Gen. Tommy Franks disclosed that American authorities have DNA from Saddam Hussein and his sons, raising hopes that forensic experts can determine whether the Iraqi president was killed in U.S. strikes on government compounds.
About 80 miles southeast of Baghdad, U.S. Marines entered the town of Kut unopposed. To the south, British forces relieved the 1st Marine Division in Al Amara, and now control the area between Al Amara and the port city of Basra.
A U.S. intelligence official said the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime has left Iraq with no border controls, raising concerns that anti-Saddam exile groups -- some of which are also anti-American -- could slip into Iraq.
Jordan said that it has received about 700,000 barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia, the first acknowledged supply since the flow from Iraq ceased at the onset of the war.
Analysts say restoring Iraq's economy will take years, even with the world's second-largest proven oil reserves.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund endorsed a U.S. request to send fact-finders to Iraq to assess rebuilding costs.
Gunmen ambushed and kidnapped three Malaysian journalists in Baghdad and killed their Iraqi interpreter, Malaysian officials said. They were later released unharmed.
An armed guard protecting a CNN crew engaged in a brief gunfight with Iraqi forces while speeding through a checkpoint near Tikrit. Two people in the CNN convoy were slightly injured.