BAGHDAD, Iraq—Elated crowds of Baghdad residents handed yellow flowers to U.S. Marines. They flashed V-for-victory signs at passing U.S. Army tanks. They tied a rope noose around a towering statue of Saddam Hussein and they pulled it down.
Jubilation swept large portions of a liberated Baghdad on Wednesday, even as widespread looting began and fierce 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 and applause and expressions of gratitude.
At allied headquarters in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said:
"The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of places where the regime has lost control. The regime is gone, and it cannot be returned."
Though many Baghdad residents remained indoors, Saddam's fate remained unknown and skirmishes raged elsewhere in the country, startling images flowed from the capital, many of them reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin wall.
At Firdos Square in the very center of Baghdad, crowds gathered around a huge statute 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 toppled—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, tugged off its pedestal by a U.S. armored vehicle. Iraqis rushed to the fragments and danced atop them.
Elsewhere, other statues of Saddam crumbled to the streets. Young Iraqis waved white towels and smiled as slowly moving U.S. tanks rumbled past. Government officials, including those who served as "minders" for foreign journalists, disappeared.
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."
No police presence was 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.
Organized military resistance failed to appear in Baghdad, but sporadic combat raged in several areas, including the grounds of Baghdad University, just a few miles from Firdos Square.
U.S. military officers cautioned that the war was not yet over.
"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."
On the eastern side of the city, 20,000 Marines rolled into neighborhoods and encountered eerily little opposition at Saddam's Azumiyah palace and at the headquarters of the super-elite Special Republican Guard.
They found only bands of up to 100 fighters armed with assault weapons and mortars—and so many thousands of civilians celebrating their arrival that what were planned as in-and-out raids quickly became permanent occupations.
Marines reported occasional, indiscriminate Iraqi artillery fire on the eastern suburb of Saddam City, where few U.S. troops held positions among two million Shiite Muslims, who are regarded as foes of Saddam's mostly Sunni regime.
"You always worry about what's out there, but at this point it really appears as if they are beginning to crumble," said Lt. Col. Nick Morano at the combat operations center of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
One Marine unit found several missiles at a military training complex, where the buildings contained murals glorifying Iraq's military. One mural showed Babylonian forces on one panel and modern tanks on the other.
Marines entered the posh Al-Sinaa sports complex, which included meeting rooms and a lounge with temporary cots where Republican Guards troops apparently had been garrisoned. The complex included a lawn—a rare sight in arid Baghdad—a VIP room with a widescreen television and a rose garden.
"That place is perverse," said Lt. Tyson Belanger on Unionville, Conn. "It shouldn't exist in a city like this."
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, counseled caution, saying he believes Saddam's regime still exists in some form. "Whether or not the regime still has its head remains to be seen," he said. "I think it will die hard."
Confirmation that Saddam was killed in an air strike Monday would be "terribly important to the Iraqi people and to Phase 4," Conway said, referring to U.S. plans for a post-Saddam government.
Without it, "there would still be uncertainty" among Iraqis and potential problems finding someone to officially surrender and end the war, Conway said in an interview.
"We'd like to think that somebody who represents the regime will step forward and say, `Where do I sign,'" he said. "It would take somebody on the short list, someone whose name would be recognized."
In south-central Iraq, other Marine units secured the headquarters of the Iraqi 10th Armored Division in the town of Amarah. They also found little or no resistance, officers said.
"The (Iraqi) soldiers were gone," said Maj. Vincent C. Kucala, a leader of the task force located about 60 miles southeast of Baghdad. "We basically went to a place we thought the Iraqi soldiers would be. They weren't. It was a little bit of a surprise. A welcome one."
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 themselves.
"Residents are trying to take it back," said Kucala, 40, of Stafford, Virginia. His unit deployed from Camp LeJeune, N.C.
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.
Commanders said they could not publicly discuss their plans, but they promised that a ground attack against Iraqi forces arrayed along the border with the Kurdish region was not far off.
Back in Baghdad, the three Regimental Combat Teams of the 1st Marine Division began their advance at 6 a.m. and had seized most of the targets on their day's list of assignments by midday.
Computers at Conway's combat operations center showed blobs of blue icons, representing satellite-tracked Army and Marine units slowly spreading throughout Baghdad.
"We have the city encircled," Conway said.
At the same time, though, Marines gave a wide berth to Saddam City, the predominantly Shiite suburb of Baghdad where Saddam is believed to have dispatched Special Republican Guards to suppress any uprisings.
The general, who also commands 25,000 British troops in southern Iraq, also said his troops would be moving soon to restore order and avert revenge killings in the long-repressed nation.
"We cannot tolerate the bloodletting and the revenges that we were cautioned would happen," Conway said. "If we see it, we will stop it."
(Tamayo and Peterson are with the Marines in Baghdad; Merzer reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Sara Olkon with the Marines in Amarah and Peter Smolowitz at allied headquarters in Qatar.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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