WASHINGTON – The collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime is complicating one of the U.S. military's top priorities in Iraq: rescuing American soldiers captured during the war.
With so many Iraqi troops killed and communications cut off, it's more difficult to find Iraqis who know where the POWs are. The search of a Baghdad military prison where Americans were held prisoner during the 1991 Persian Gulf War found bloody American uniforms, but not the soldiers who had worn them.
American forces are listening in on the remaining Iraqi communications, questioning Iraqi POWs and seeking help from civilians in trying to find and free the Americans, Pentagon officials say.
A tip from an Iraqi led to the rescue last week of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch from a hospital in the Euphrates River city of Nasiriyah and the recovery of eight bodies of soldiers who had been captured along with Lynch.
The seven Americans formally listed as POWs in Iraq include five members of Lynch's Army maintenance unit ambushed on March 23 and the two pilots of an Apache helicopter that went down a day later. Shortly after their capture, Iraqi television showed images of the seven being questioned by their captors.
Representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross, which monitors POW conditions, have not been able to visit the captured Americans.
Pentagon officials said Thursday they believe all seven are still alive and being held by what's left of Saddam's regime. On Wednesday, the Pentagon's top general called on Iraq to treat the prisoners well and let the Red Cross visit them.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he issued the warning "to not let the Iraqi regime off the hook for doing what is the right thing to do."
Many of the 23 Americans held by Iraq during the 1991 war said they were moved often during their captivity. Many ended up in Baghdad, held either in the basement of what was then Saddam's secret police headquarters or at the prison in the Rasheed military complex in southeastern Baghdad.
Jeff Zaun was held by Iraq for 47 days after his A-6E Intruder was shot down and spent much of that time at the Rasheed prison. The discovery of uniforms by the U.S. Marines who now control the Rasheed base is not a reason to give up hope, Zaun said.
"It's not necessarily something sinister," said Zaun, now of Cherry Hill, N.J. "When I got to Rasheed the first thing they did was have me remove my flight suit and they gave me the POW pajamas, took away my shoelaces. It was standard."
Other POWs were held at other Iraqi military installations or at a civilian prison in the Baghdad area. Daniel Stamaris Jr., the crew chief of an Army Black Hawk helicopter shot down on the last day of the 1991 war, was transferred several times during his week in captivity.
Stamaris, whose legs and pelvis were severely fractured in the crash, was held by Republican Guard forces, left for dead in the desert, taken to a hospital in Basra, held in that city's Baath Party headquarters, then taken to Baghdad.
In the Iraqi capital, Stamaris was held in a cell down the hall from another American prisoner and a British captive. He said they were guarded by Iraqis in military uniforms.
"Military intelligence never did figure out where we were held," said Stamaris, now a civilian worker at the Army helicopter training base of Fort Rucker, Ala.
U.S. officials say all the Americans held by Iraq 12 years ago were mistreated, including being beaten and threatened. Stamaris, who was threatened, slapped, spit on and paraded through Basra's streets, said he is worried the current POWs may be suffering similar mistreatment.
"They were never held accountable for what they did to us, and I feel that emboldened them to treat any other prisoners just as bad," Stamaris said.