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Evidence of missing U.S. soldiers found at sprawling airfield

MARINE COMBAT HEADQUARTERS, Iraq—Marines found chemical weapons protective jackets bearing the names of two missing U.S. soldiers at a military airfield east of Baghdad, officials here said Tuesday.

Also found at the sprawling complex at the Rashid airfield was a pair of Army pants in desert camouflage pattern.

Marine officials had hoped the Americans might be at the airfield. "There were specific indications. We had reason to believe they were there," said Lt. Col. Nick Morano, 41, senior watch officer at the combat operations center of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF).

"Some of the uniform items appear to have been shot," and were bloodstained, he said. The raiders also found syringes and antibiotics in a possible sign that some of the POWs had received medical treatment.

He declined to say to which missing Americans the jackets were thought to have belonged. Seven members of the 3rd Infantry Division are believed to be in Iraqi hands after they became separated from a convoy in the early days of the war south of Nasiriyah. PFC Jessica Lynch, who was also part of the captured unit, was rescued last week from Nasiriyah's Saddam Hospital.

Iraqi forces are believed to have used the Rashid prison and hospital to hold American POWs during the 1991 Gulf War, and Iraqi dissidents have said the prison was used to torture important regime opponents.

Morano described the airfield as a vast complex of more than 100 buildings and said Marines from the 5,000-member Regimental Combat Team 7 were continuing to search the area for any signs of the POWs.

RCT 7 attacked the airfield before dawn Tuesday and ran into light resistance from groups of 30 to 100 men, a mix of regular army soldiers and pro-government militias, but reported suffering no casualties.

It was unclear how recently U.S. officials thought the Americans might have been at the airfield or whether they might have been moved just in advance of the Marine press into Baghdad. Marine units first crossed the Diyala River east of the airfield Monday after tough combat with Iraqi units.

The last units of the 20,000-strong 1st Marine Division crossed Tuesday and entered southeastern Baghdad.

Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, said Marines also had hoped to find Kuwaiti prisoners at the airfield. More than 600 Kuwaitis are missing from Iraq's 1991 occupation of Kuwait.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.