Marines free seven U.S. POWs in Iraq
Saddam Hussein's half-brother taken into U.S. custody
TIKRIT, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines advancing on Tikrit -- the last major Iraqi city not under coalition control -- freed seven U.S. prisoners of war Sunday before racing to the front.
The POWs were recovered by Marines who had been sent into Samarra to keep traffic from interfering with an armored column approaching the battle, Brig. Gen. John Kelly told Matthew Fisher, a reporter with Canada's National Post newspaper. Samarra is about 75 miles [120 kilometers] north of Baghdad.
An Iraqi policeman approached the Marines and asked if they had come for the prisoners. He led the Marines to a nearby building, Fisher reported, where they found the seven Americans guarded by at least one Iraqi soldier.
The Marines surrounded the prisoners to assure them they wouldn't be abandoned and gave them fresh clothes, Fisher said. They were given first aid and then whisked away on Army helicopters to a coalition air base 65 miles [104 kilometers] south of Baghdad. (Dramatic rescue)
U.S. Central Command identified the freed POWs as Spc. Joseph Hudson, Sgt. James Riley, Spc. Shoshana Johnson, Spc. Edgar Hernandez and Pfc. Patrick Miller -- members of a convoy from the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company that was ambushed March 23 near Nasiriya -- and chief warrant officers Ronald Young Jr. and David S. Williams, pilots who were captured March 24 after their Apache helicopter gunship went down south of Baghdad. (Full story)
Meanwhile, a half-brother of Saddam Hussein is in U.S. custody after attempting to escape Iraq into Syria, a U.S. official said Sunday.
No other details were provided about the capture of Watban Ibrahim Hasan al-Tikriti, who is on the U.S. list of 55 most-wanted Iraqi senior leaders.
A deck of playing cards has been distributed to U.S. troops to help them recognize fugitive Iraqi leaders. Al-Tikriti's image is on the deck's five of spades.
In Baghdad, U.S. Marines exchanged fire early Monday with snipers in a building near the Palestine Hotel, where many Western journalists are housed. For more than two hours, beginning just before 1:30 a.m. [5:30 p.m. Sunday EDT], Marines staked out positions along Firdos Square, occasionally firing rounds of ammunition and sending up flares to light the area.
The Marines said they took three men into custody whom they suspect of carrying out the shooting. The men were thought to be guards at a nearby club and had been hiding in a building next to a gas station on Firdos Square, across from the hotel.
The Marines were interrogating the men after their arrest, and said others involved in the shooting escaped.
Sporadic fighting in Saddam's hometown
U.S. Marines battled Iraqi forces in Tikrit, but the fighting has been sporadic, Fisher said.
The forces would engage Iraqi fighters for five or 10 minutes at a time, followed by a lull of an hour or so, he said.
A "fairly large core" of about 2,500 Iraqi soldiers -- the apparent last vestige of Iraq's army and Republican Guard -- "looks as if it is prepared to fight an urban battle" with the Marines, Fisher told CNN.
"Whether Saddam Hussein is alive or not, his regime still lives in this town," he said.
A large number of Cobra attack helicopters were engaging Iraqi forces inside Tikrit, and about 250 armored vehicles from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had entered the north-central city as well, Fisher said. Fisher is embedded with Marines sent to Tikrit.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Iraqi army has been destroyed and "there is no regime command and control." But he said pockets of paramilitary and foreign fighters remain throughout the country. (Full story)
Earlier Sunday, CNN's Brent Sadler, one of the few Western journalists to travel to the immediate outskirts of Tikrit, said the town looked abandoned -- with no military movement and only a few civilians on the road. Highway signs bearing the deposed Iraqi leader's image were still intact.
The CNN convoy entered the city Sunday morning but had to flee under a hail of machine gun fire after passing through a checkpoint. (Full story)
At least one of the vehicles was hit, and a bodyguard returned fire. Sadler said two people in the seven-vehicle convoy suffered minor injuries.
• After days of negotiations, religious and civic leaders of Kut handed over administrative control of the city Sunday to the Marines' Task Force Tarawa. The Marines will train Iraqis to patrol the city to counter any paramilitary fighters that might try to attack U.S. forces. (Full story)
• The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier group Abraham Lincoln left the Persian Gulf on Saturday, Vice Adm. Timothy Keating said. "We are looking at a gradual and measured reduction" of naval forces in the Persian Gulf and eastern Mediterranean Sea, he said.
• U.N. relief agencies expect to return to Iraq by Monday to resume humanitarian efforts. The United Nations pulled its staff out of the country March 18. (Full story)
-- CNN correspondents Christiane Amanpour, Rula Amin, Jane Arraf, Bob Franken, Art Harris, Tom Mintier, Thomas Nybo, Walter Rodgers and Brent Sadler contributed to this report.
EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.