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In heart of Baghdad, elated Iraqis welcome Marines

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Elated crowds handed yellow flowers to U.S. Marines. They flashed V-for-victory signs at U.S. Army tanks. They waved palm fronds and they blew kisses and they danced atop splintered symbols of oppression.

In a place called Fardos Square, in the very center of Baghdad, they tied a rope noose around a towering statue of Saddam Hussein and pulled it down. Fardos means "paradise" in Arabic.

After 24 years of clenched-fist repression and only three weeks of war, Saddam's control of Iraq all but evaporated Wednesday. As darkness veiled the capital Wednesday night, relative calm descended over the city of 5 million people.

"The game is over," said Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Aldouri in New York. "I hope the peace will prevail."

During the day, jubilation swept large portions of a liberated Baghdad, even as looters plundered many buildings, and firefights—possibly the dying gasps of Saddam's regime—flared in adjoining neighborhoods.

"It's in the end game now," said Marine Capt. Mike Martin as thousands of Baghdad residents swarmed around his troops, welcoming them with cheers, applause and expressions of gratitude.

Some Iraqis waved American flags. Others kissed pictures of President Bush. Many beat their chests and chanted, "There is a burning in our chests," a Shiite Muslim slogan, and "there is no god but Allah" and "Bush No. 1, Bush No. 1."

"The regime is gone and it cannot be returned," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at allied headquarters in Qatar.

He and others cautioned that the war was not over, more combat was likely and difficult work remains undone:

_Saddam's fate was unknown, rooftop snipers harassed some U.S. troops Wednesday and skirmishes with Iraqi paramilitary forces raged in some corners of Baghdad and the country at large, especially in the north.

_Pro-Saddam forces still control much of north-central Iraq, including Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace and home to several tribes fiercely loyal to the president, and the city of Mosul and its surrounding oil fields, Marine officers said.

_The Marines also reported 1,500 to 2,000 resistance fighters in the southeastern city of Kut, bypassed by American forces in their rush to Baghdad.

Nevertheless, celebrations by fearless Iraqis cascaded from Baghdad south to the city of Hillah and north to Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.

"It is a signal for the liberation and freedom of all the Iraqi people," Ahmad Abdullah Kareem, a 23-year-old student, yelled above the cacophony of car horns, chanting and music in Sulaimaniyah.

The joy stretched all the way to Dearborn, Mich., where hundreds of Iraqi-Americans and others launched a spontaneous parade, waving U.S. and Iraqi flags. They chanted: "Saddam is dead, long live Iraq."

But it was mainly from Baghdad that startling images flowed, many of them reminiscent of the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall and other bricks of the Soviet bloc.

At Fardos Square, crowds gathered around the 40-foot-tall statue of Saddam.

One man climbed to the top and wrapped a rope noose around the neck. Others could not wait for the statue to be felled—they chipped away at the base with a sledgehammer. A U.S soldier briefly wrapped an American flag around the top of the statue, shrouding the head in the Stars and Stripes.

Finally, at 6:50 p.m. local time (10:50 a.m. EDT), the statue fell, pulled off its pedestal by a U.S. armored vehicle. Iraqis rushed to the fragments and danced atop them. One man dragged the head through city streets; others battered it with their shoes.

At the White House, Bush watched some of the scene on television. "They got it down," he said of the statue. Then, he returned to work.

"Anyone seeing the faces of liberated Iraqis, freed Iraqis, has to say that this is a very good day," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."

He asked everyone to remember the cost in American casualties. The U.S. military toll: at least 101 men and women dead, with many others wounded.

Rumsfeld also issued another veiled warning to Syria, which shares Iraq's northwestern border. "Senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria, and Syria is continuing to send things into Iraq," he said.

"We find it notably unhelpful."

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair—the administration's staunchest ally in the war—was "delighted" by Wednesday's developments, according to a spokesman who warned that "there are some very difficult things to do."

Among them: finding Saddam, his two sons and other close aides if they're still alive, or else finding proof that they're dead.

Ahmad Chalabi, the once-exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, told CNN that he believes Saddam survived a Monday airstrike on a residential neighborhood in Baghdad and was in a town northeast of the capital.

Rumsfeld said he did not know the whereabouts of Saddam, and he implied that it hardly mattered.

"He's not active," he said. "Therefore, he's either dead or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in a tunnel someplace, trying to avoid being caught."

Throughout Baghdad, however, many statues portraying the Iraqi leader crumbled to the streets. Young Iraqis waved white towels and smiled as slowly moving U.S. tanks rumbled past.

At the same time, many Iraqis looted abandoned government buildings and other sites, particularly the Al-Sinaa sports complex that held thousands of new athletic shoes and was alleged to be the site of an Iraqi torture chamber.

Gunnery Sgt. Craig Lawrence, 41, a Marine platoon leader, sat in the gun turret of his armored vehicle as the crowd milled around him, cheering and clapping. He laughed as one looter took a bottle of Pinch scotch whiskey and presented it to a Marine.

"I've been training for 20 years," Lawrence said. "But we never trained for this."

Other Baghdad residents handed packs of recently looted Sumer cigarettes to arriving Marines.

If, as the Pentagon claimed, the Iraqi regime's communications had been destroyed, Saddam's minions all somehow got word that they needn't report for work on Wednesday.

No police were visible in what until a day or two ago had been the capital city of a police state. Looters roamed unhindered through police stations, government ministries and other buildings, carrying away furniture and computers, driving away in military jeeps. The remarkably resilient information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, was nowhere to be seen.

Marines rushed two battalions to protect three International Committee of the Red Cross facilities, including its headquarters, a warehouse and a psychiatric hospital, after ICRC officials in Geneva reported they were threatened by looting.

U.S. reconnaissance drones found the offices of Saddam's powerful son, Odai, "a burning hull" and one of the president's palaces "is rubble," according to Lt. Col. Dave Pere at Marine headquarters southeast of Baghdad.

Organized military resistance did not materialize in Baghdad, but sporadic combat raged in several areas, including the grounds of Baghdad University, just a few miles from Fardos Square.

"The forces that are in Baghdad still have combat work to do," Brooks said. "There are still pockets. We haven't located every leader of the regime, we haven't found every instrument of the regime."

In western Iraq, pilots struck the Baath Party headquarters in Qa'im, near the Syrian border. Overall, U.S. Air Force warplanes launched 550 attacks on Iraqi targets Wednesday, officials said.

In northern Iraq, elements of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, which spent two weeks deep in Kurdish-held territory, moved south to within 20 miles of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to prepare for future operations.

Huge celebrations erupted in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of Kurds jammed downtown market squares, linking arms in a traditional Kurdish dance, some kissing the hands of passing American reporters and photographers.

"This is a happy day, not so much for us older people but for coming generations," said Abdullah Mohammed Abdullah, a retired government clerk.

"Our children will be spared from all the sufferings we have endured—Saddam's slaughtering, oppression and chemical attacks."

In south-central Iraq, Marine units secured the headquarters of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division in the town of Amarah, about 60 miles southeast of Baghdad. They also found little or no resistance—and some evidence of local cooperation.

Before the units went in, Marine reconnaissance scouts noticed that a bridge had been rigged with explosives. Civilians from Amarah told Marines that they cut the wires.

Back in the capital, 20,000 Marines rolled into eastern neighborhoods and encountered eerily little opposition at Saddam's Azumiyah palace and the headquarters of the Special Republican Guard.

Marines reported bands of fighters armed with assault weapons and mortars and occasional, indiscriminate Iraqi artillery fire on the eastern suburb of Saddam City, where few U.S. troops held positions among 2 million Shiite Muslims, foes of Saddam's mostly Sunni regime.

Other Marines entered the posh Al-Sinaa sports complex, which included meeting rooms and a lounge with temporary cots where Republican Guard troops apparently had been garrisoned. The complex included a lawn—a rare sight in arid Baghdad—a VIP room with a wide-screen television and a rose garden.

An excited Iraqi man outside the sports complex beckoned a French television crew and waited until they came closer before hurling his shoe at a picture of Saddam.

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who commands the Marine force and 25,000 British troops in southern Iraq, said his forces soon would move to suppress looting, restore order and avert retaliatory, score-settling killings among Iraqis.

"We cannot tolerate the bloodletting and the revenges that we were cautioned would happen," Conway said. "If we see it, we will stop it."

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(Tamayo and Peterson are with the Marines in Baghdad; Merzer reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Ken Dilanian with the Army in northern Iraq; Andrea Gerlin with the Marines in Baghdad; Jessica Guynn at the Pentagon; Jonathan S. Landay in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq; Mark McDonald in Irbil, Iraq; Sara Olkon with the Marines in Amarah; Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar; Sumana Chatterjee in Washington; and Fawn Vrazo in London.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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