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Details of U.S. civilian's escape from Iraqi captors emerge

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Held captive in a small, nondescript building, contract worker Thomas Hamill heard the familiar rumble of Humvees and decided to make a dash for freedom.

He pried open the sheet-metal door, found no one standing guard and ran several hundred yards to the U.S. patrol. He stumbled several times while waving his black shirt and shouting, "I'm an American! I'm an American!"

The dramatic details of his escape were described Monday by soldiers who recovered him Sunday morning about 45 miles northwest of Baghdad.

The news of Hamill's escape was offset by more bad news from Iraq. Coalition officials reported that a 1st Armored Division soldier and a Marine were killed Monday. They also said four soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division died Monday when their Humvee rolled over during an evening combat patrol in Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. Their names were withheld pending notification of relatives.

In Najaf, Iraqi militiamen thought to be associated with the Mahdi Army of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr pounded a U.S. military base with mortars. American soldiers took over the base last week from departing Spanish troops.

In the prisoner abuse controversy, a senior military official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed Monday that six soldiers have been reprimanded and another one admonished for the mistreatment and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. Six military police officers face criminal charges in the widening scandal.

Attempting to quell another controversy, military commanders replaced a former Iraqi Republican Guard two-star general as the leader of 600 to 1,100 Iraqi army veterans who are supposed to replace U.S. Marines in the insurgent hotbed of Fallujah.

Former Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh, originally tapped for the job, now probably will report to Maj. Gen. Mohammed Latif, a former Iraqi military intelligence officer once imprisoned by Saddam Hussein. Saleh angered U.S. officials by claiming there are no foreign fighters in Fallujah.

Recounting Hamill's escape offered some upbeat news.

Hamill, 43, whose cool, poker-faced demeanor aired around the world in videos taken during his captivity, was grabbed by anti-occupation insurgents April 9 after the truck he was driving in a convoy near Baghdad was ambushed.

Now safe in American hands, the dairy farmer from Macon, Miss., was transported Monday to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and was taken to a hospital. He had a gunshot wound to his right forearm, but the soldiers said he appeared to be in good shape.

Hamill is "one tough man, I'll tell ya," said Sgt. 1st Class Mark Forbes, 43, one of the soldiers who recovered him.

Since Hamill's ambush, a soldier and four fellow contract workers from Kellogg Brown & Root who were in Hamill's convoy have been found dead. One American soldier, Pfc. Keith M. Maupin, who also was videotaped in captivity, remains missing.

On Sunday, soldiers from a New York National Guard unit were patrolling a remote section of north-central Iraq when they saw what appeared to be an Iraqi farmer running toward them. When he got close enough, the soldiers recognized Hamill.

"He was waving his hands and shouting. He fell a couple of times," said 2nd Lt. Joseph Merrill, 28.

Hamill told them he'd been moved to the building that morning, and he took about 40 soldiers back there. No one was in the building, but the soldiers found an AK-47 in the grass outside.

Whoever had the weapon "probably saw us coming and decided 40 on one wasn't going to be a good day for him, and he probably ran off," Forbes said.

In a small room, the soldiers found Hamill's cramped quarters and some bare essentials: a cushion with a blanket and pillow; a yellow bag with a few medical supplies such as cotton swabs; a gas lamp; a bucket of water; a can to use as a toilet; and a box of cookies.

"He had said he hadn't been abused," Merrill said.

Hamill thought to himself, "This is the only chance I've got," he told the soldiers. He assumed there was a guard outside, the soldiers said, but bolted anyway and found none.

He told the soldiers, "I could've escaped a bunch of times. Where am I gonna go?" He didn't know where he was, and didn't know whom he might encounter once he was outside.

The soldiers said they detained two men in the house's vicinity, who were being questioned. The soldiers added that they didn't know yet whether the two men were involved in Hamill's kidnapping.

Less than an hour and a half after finding Hamill, the soldiers saw him off on a helicopter to a base north of the town of Tikrit.

Their brief encounter with Hamill stirred the men's emotions. "We knew we had gotten somebody good," Merrill said.

Said Forbes, "When he got on that bird to leave, I had tears in my eyes."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.