Iran's leader on Friday threw his support behind the rebels fighting Saddam Hussein, calling for the overthrow of the Iraqi leader and his party. Baghdad, for its part, said it would free 40 foreign journalists and two more U.S. soldiers.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced plans to repatriate more than 60,000 Iraqi POWs, and the trickle of American troops arriving home swelled to a joyous flood.In Savannah, Ga., one arriving American soldier bent to kiss the ground after a C-141 transport plane carrying 105 troops touched down early Friday at Hunter Army Airfield. A waiting crowd cheered wildly, and a huge banner read, "Welcome Home Heroes."
Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, said farewell to some of his homeward-bound front-line troops. Speaking at a ceremony in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he told the 1,700 members from the Army's VII Corps, "It's a great day to be a soldier."
A grimmer homecoming awaited the Iraqi POWs, whose repatriation is to begin Monday.
The uprising against Saddam was said to have spread to his capital, and the government said anyone involved is a "traitor" who will pay dearly.
The president of Iran, which proclaimed neutrality in the war, Friday declared his sympathy for the attempts to overthrow Saddam. Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran would cooperate with Iraq only if Saddam and his Arab Baath Socialist Party surrender "to the will of the people."
Rafsanjani lambasted Saddam for trying to put down the rebellion. "Saddam is making a mistake while suppressing the people," Rafsanjani said. "This is the worst mistake."
The Iranian leader was addressing worshipers gathered at Tehran University for prayers. His comments, carried by Tehran Radio, were monitored in Cyprus.
It was the first time an Iranian leader has openly backed the revolt in Iraq, which has been blamed primarily on Shiite Muslims.
Shiites make up 55 percent of Iraq's 17 million population. They have long historical ties with Iran's predominantly Shiite population of 55 million, but Iranian officials have denied any involvement in the unrest.
Saddam and his government aides are Sunni Muslims.
The U.S. military said Friday an agreement reached by allied and Iraqi officials on Thursday calls for several hundred Iraqis per day to be sent home by bus and truck from holding camps in northern Saudi Arabia.
Baghdad Radio quoted an unidentified government spokesman as saying Friday it would turn over the 40 foreign reporters and the two American soldiers to Red Cross officials in Baghdad. It said they disappeared "during illegal presence in Basra."
Regarding the two soldiers, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Miguel E. Monteverde said he was aware of the Baghdad Radio broadcast but "they don't match any names that we've got. Right now we don't know who they are."
The Baghdad government had refused to say it was holding any missing journalists, who were trying to cover the rebellion in southern Iraq.
Earlier, two journalists - CBS technician Timothy Dickey and cameraman Chris Everson - surfaced near the Iraq-Kuwait border. Iraqi gunmen had stolen their four-wheel drive vehicle and equipment earlier in the week, and U.S. Army units came across them in the desert.
The Iraqis also are promising to release Kuwaitis abducted during the nearly seven-month Iraqi occupation of the emirate.
The first 1,000 of them - of an estimated 30,000 - were freed Thursday, and some were arrived Friday in Kuwait City. They expressed fury at their former captors.
"It was like hell," said Hami Jamal, a 27-year-old computer engineer who was taken from his house by Iraqi troops three weeks ago. "We drank swamp water for days. And for what crimes? For being Kuwaitis."
The official Kuwait News Agency later put the number of released civilians at 1,881, quoting Kuwait's Human Rights Committee.Barring a new outbreak of fighting, U.S. troops will begin leaving the gulf at the rate of 5,000 a day, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Thursday.
At that rate, most of the 540,000 soldiers in the gulf would be home by July 4th, the date President Bush has set as "a special day of celebration for our returning troops."
Also, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the 21 Americans who were held prisoners of war by Iraq would be returning on a single plane "within a few days, perhaps as early as Sunday."
The troops arriving in Georgia Friday were from the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), which was deployed to the gulf in August. Also returning were about 900 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C..
Cheney cautioned that the pace of the U.S. withdrawal hinges on the outcome of the formal cease-fire negotiations with Iraq, as do prospects for the removal of the allied forces occupying much of southern Iraq.
Cheney called the situation in Iraq "somewhat volatile" but said at least for now it appeared Saddam would be able to keep a grip on power.
Saddam may have more to fear from top Iraqi officials than from civil unrest. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, there are signs of discontent among Saddam's inner circle - political and military allies who would be best positioned for a strike against him.
"He needs to be more concerned about the men in uniform closest to him," said Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Official Iraqi media, which at first ignored the unrest, made their first overt reference to it on Thursday, in the form of threats against dissidents.
"Everybody who tries to undermine the security of the revolution is a traitor and a mercenary," said the Al-Thawra newspaper. "All of them shall regret it. They will pay."
The warnings came as a Shiite opposition leader said the rebellion had spread to Baghdad. The leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi, said rioting broke out Wednesday in Baghdad's al-Thawra and al-Shulla districts, where many poor Shiites live.