GWEN IFILL: The safe return of American prisoners of war is the top story this 25th day of the war in Iraq. Seven POW's were released by Iraqi troops to American forces in Samarra, a town between Baghdad and Tikrit. Five were members of the 507th Maintenance Company, captured in March when they made a wrong turn in the desert and walked into an ambush: Specialist Edgar Hernandez of Mission, Texas; Specialist Joseph Hudson of Alamogordo, New Mexico; Private First Class Patrick Miller of Park City, Kansas; Specialist Shoshana Johnson of Fort Bliss, Texas; and Sgt. James Rily of Pennsauken, New Jersey. There were also two U.S. Army helicopter pilots: Chief Warrant Officer David Williams of Orlando, Florida, and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young of Lithia Springs, Georgia. The POW's are now in Kuwait. An enthusiastic Pres. Bush spoke to reporters when he returned to the White House this afternoon from Camp David.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Today is a great day for the families, comrades, loved ones of the seven missing in action who are free. I'm really pleased for all those who have been praying for their safety, that they are safe. We still have missing in action in Iraq. We will continue to look for them. We pray that they, too, will be safe and free one of these days. But it's just a good way to start off the morning, to have been notified that seven of our fellow Americans are... are going to be home here pretty soon in the arms of their loved ones.
GWEN IFILL: A CNN crew was on the scene when the rescued prisoners were flown to an American base south of Baghdad. Ray Suarez talked with CNN's Bob Franken, who was there with the 24th Marine expeditionary unit.
RAY SUAREZ: What was your impression of how they looked after three weeks in captivity?
BOB FRANKEN: I was quite frankly astounded at how healthy they looked. The first five of them were racing off the plane, throwing their fists in the air. One of them had a sling on his shoulder, but he was obviously in good health and certainly good spirits. The other two-- we had heard that there were two who had gotten gunshot wounds; I don't know if that turned out to be true-- but the other two were hobbling a little bit, but they were under their own power, and needed no assistance as they got into the ambulance, and they were taken away. To me it was quite remarkable that somebody who had gone through that ordeal had not only been released in the amazing way that they had, but had come through it in such physical health and such spirits.
RAY SUAREZ: What have you been able to find out since about how the transfer was made? These were surrendering Iraqi troops?
BOB FRANKEN: Yes. There's varying versions of this story, but the one that I've heard from here, which is quite a bit removed from where it actually happened, is that the unit that was holding these seven had a desertion by all its top officers. Of course, we've been hearing that that's nothing remarkable. The officers left, leaving some of their junior people with their prisoners. The junior people decided they needed to surrender. Now, some people say they used an intermediary. Others said they themselves went up to Highway One with their prisoners and saw the marine unit, a light armored division, heading to Tikrit for participation in the combat that's going there. They stopped them and said, "We want to surrender, and we have some POW's for you." And, of course, the POW's were immediately taken off their hands and returned to our base here, which by the way is 65 miles south of Baghdad. The Iraqis who surrendered were turned over. They were, of course, taken prisoner, and are still going through, we're told, intelligence briefings.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, altogether a pretty good day after, I guess, some real concerns after nobody had heard from these men, or about the men and one woman, since March.
BOB FRANKEN: I must tell you that as long as I've been in the business, there's few moments where you see such a jubilant atmosphere as you saw here-- not only the prisoners themselves, but the marines on this base, who were allowed to come onto the tarmac, probably 100 of them or so, in their Humvee vehicles. And as the ambulances went past from the helicopter a short distance to the plane, they lined that tarmac and were applauding as they went past. It was a very happy moment.
GWEN IFILL: Family members around the country were overjoyed at the news. The parents of Ronald Young were typical.
KAYE YOUNG: We are so thankful that this went good for all of them. I mean, all seven, can you believe that? That is amazing!
ROANDL YOUNG, SR.: Well, when I initially found out, I saw him, it was just like somebody had won the World Series. Everybody was jumping around and hollering and, you know, it was just great. To me, it was the best thing in the world. It was the culmination - it may be the greatest point in my life.
GWEN IFILL: The other major war story today was the continued American advance on Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's ancestral home and last stronghold of forces loyal to his regime.
Terence smith has more on that and other war news.
TERENCE SMITH: U.S. Marines battled Iraqi soldiers on the southern outskirts of Tikrit today. New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins accompanied a force of about 3,000 marines there. I spoke to him earlier today.
DEXTER FILKINS: The marines moved in after a pretty intensive bombing by jets and by helicopters that really worked the place over. I heard machine gun fire. There were rockets. I spoke just a few moments ago to a lieutenant colonel here who was part of the spearhead that went into the city, and he said that resistance was pretty heavy. They were... you know, they shot, and they were shot back at, but that they got the foothold that they wanted. And I think you can be pretty sure that they're going to go back in tomorrow.
TERENCE SMITH: Dexter, is there any expectation that either Saddam Hussein or key members of his regime are, in fact, in Tikrit?
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I think the... I think the expectation is that there are senior military people here, you know, senior Republican Guard people here. I spoke to General John Kelly about this very subject before the fighting started, and he said, "our best information is that"-- and this surprised me-- he said, "our best information is that most of the big guys in the government"-- he didn't name any names-- but he said, "most of the big guys in Saddam Hussein's government are believed to have already left the country."
TERENCE SMITH: I assume it's now dark, Dexter. Is fighting continuing after dark?
DEXTER FILKINS: Well, most of the fighting has stopped, although just as I picked up the phone to call, there was some artillery fire going on. Just as the sun set a couple of hours ago, you could still see the F-18s in the air. It's a beautiful night here, I should add. I mean, it must be about... about 60 degrees, and it's a full moon, so it's... we're just out here on the plains outside the city, and it's quite lovely. It's hard to imagine, though, what's going on inside the city right now.
TERENCE SMITH: Earlier today, U.S. forces found abandoned Iraqi tanks and equipment along the road as they made their advance towards Tikrit. But today, in an interview on CNN's Late Edition, U.S. Commander General Tommy Franks cautioned that the war is not over yet.
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: One would like to think that, but I think we would be premature to say, "Well, gosh, it's all done, it's all finished." There are several things we know. We know that the army has been destroyed. The Iraqi army has been destroyed. We know that there is no regime command and control in existence right now. We know that there are pockets of... I've heard them referred to as everything from paramilitary to death squad to Fedayeen Saddam. We know that there are pockets of that. We also know that there are pockets of foreigners in Iraq who have decided to fight till their last breath, and so, until we have a sense that we have all of that under control, then we probably will not characterize the initial military phase as having been completed and the regime totally gone.
RAY SUAREZ: In Baghdad, U.S. Marines captured a small group believed to be Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen fighters. Meanwhile, army soldiers guarded banks, hospitals, and universities in the capital, but the ministry of trade was ablaze. And looting in a few neighborhoods prompted some locals to take matters into their own hands.
MAN: Because there is no police, no military police, nothing. Nobody patrols here. Americans say we do patrols, but they do not do anything.
RAY SUAREZ: Marines found large caches of weapons and ammunition in schools and homes like this one near the Palestine Hotel, where many western journalists have been staying. And in the city hall, marines discovered about 20 luxury cars, some valued in the millions of dollars. Not far away, scores of Iraqis protested, angry that water and electricity have been disrupted, and civil order not yet restored. In other areas, residents cleaned up after the looters, and repaired damage caused by coalition bombs. In the southern city of Basra, British troops distributed a newspaper that they said was written "by Iraqis for Iraqis."
MAJOR DAVID KEMMISBETTY, British Army: Basically, this is the first example of some free press for Iraq, the first time they've had a newspaper from outside that hasn't been directed by the Ba'ath Party, and hasn't been Saddam's message. And this has basically been written by locals, with a bit of input by the military explaining what we are up to, the fact that we are here to help, and we are here to try and put Iraq back on its feet together and try to help Iraqis build a future for their country.
RAY SUAREZ: British soldiers also worked with local Iraqi policemen to set up a functioning police force in Iraq's second largest city. In northern Iraq, U.S. tanks rolled into central Kirkuk. Troops patrolled that town, rampaged by looters over the weekend. They also secured the oil field there. U.S. officials said production could resume in "a few weeks." A U.S. Marine was killed overnight at a checkpoint outside a Baghdad medical facility. His assailant, killed by other marines, was carrying Syrian identification. Four other soldiers were shot and wounded while clearing an arms dump in the southern part of the city. And a Special Forces soldier in Mosul was shot in the leg while on security patrol. The official number of U.S. dead in the war so far is 115. Five U.S. troops remain missing. After the seven American prisoners of war were found today, the POW count now stands at zero. The British death toll is 31. And there still is no reliable number of Iraqi military and civilian casualties. Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Thanks, Terry. U.S.-led forces reportedly have captured Saddam Hussein's half brother in northern Iraq. The Associated Press reported that finding today. Watban Ibrahim Hasan was apprehended in recent days in the Mosul area, and was apparently planning to cross the border into Syria. In Washington, Pres. Bush issued another warning to Syria today, saying it must not become a safe haven for the fleeing Iraqi regime.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: The Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition party and not harbor any, Ba'athists, any military officials who need to be held to account for their tenure during what we are learning more and more about - it was one of the most horrendous governments ever.
GWEN IFILL: In London, Secretary of State Powell said the Iraqi people will choose their future government in democratic elections. He said, "We are not in the business of installing the next president of Iraq." Powell hoped to dispel fears that the U.S. will appoint a puppet administration in Iraq.