By Ravi Nessman and David Espo
Their hour of freedom at hand, jubilant Iraqis celebrated the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime on Wednesday, beheading a toppled statue of their longtime ruler in downtown Baghdad and embracing American troops as liberators.
“I’m 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living,” said Yussuf Abed Kazim, a mosque preacher. A young Iraqi spat on a portrait of Saddam. Men hugged Americans in full combat gear, and women held up babies so soldiers riding on tanks could kiss them.
Iraqis released decades of pent-up fury as U.S. forces solidified their grip on the capital. Marine tanks rolled to the eastern bank of the Tigris River; the Army was on the western side of the waterway that curls through the ancient city.
Looting broke out in the capital as Iraqis, shedding their fear of the regime, entered government facilities and made off with furniture, computers, air conditioners and even military jeeps.
“We are not seeing any organized resistance,” said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp at the U.S. Central Command. “The Iraqi military is unable to fight as an organized fighting force.”
There was continued combat in cities to the north, though, where government troops were under attack from U.S. and British warplanes.
The scenes of liberation in Baghdad and celebrations in scattered other cities unfolded as the Pentagon announced that 101 American troops had died in the first three weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Eleven others are missing and seven listed as captured. The British said 30 of their troops were dead. There are no reliable estimates for Iraqi casualties, although an Army spokesman said 7,300 prisoners had been taken.
The medical system was overrun with civilian casualties in Basra and Baghdad, cities where some of the fiercest fighting has occurred. Doctors said 35 bodies and as many as 300 wounded Iraqis were brought to the al-Kindi hospital in the capital Tuesday.
Saddam’s whereabouts remained a mystery, especially so since a bombing Monday night on a building where U.S. intelligence officials believed he and at least one of his sons were meeting. U.S. special operations forces scoured the site Wednesday, looking for remains or other evidence that the four bombs may have killed the Iraqi leader. Russia’s Foreign Ministry denied that Saddam had taken refuge in Moscow’s embassy in Baghdad.
There was scattered fighting in the capital, including at Baghdad University, where Iraqis were cornered, the river at their backs.
Fires burned in the city after dark — the Ministry of Transport and Communication was ablaze — and gunfire persisted. But Pentagon officials characterized it as sporadic attacks from pockets of resistance, and said U.S. troops had been through most areas of the capital.
Increasingly, American and British forces were turning their effort to humanitarian assistance in the southern part of the country, and their firepower on northern regions not yet under their control.
Warplanes bombed Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace about 100 miles north of the capital, in advance of ground forces moving in. American commandos and Kurdish peshmerga fighters seized a key mountaintop in northern Iraq, eliminating an Iraqi air defense installation near the government-held city of Mosul.
To the south, officials said the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment had reached Qurnah, said to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. The troops were welcomed by cheering crowds of Ma’dan, marsh Arabs who have suffered genocide at the hands of Saddam. There was celebrating, too, in Basra, according to a British journalist who reported that rejoicing broke out after news of developments in Baghdad reached the city.
Administration officials cautioned that difficult and dangerous days may yet lie ahead for American and British forces. “This is not over despite all the celebrating on the streets,” said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. And Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi death squads still exist in the western part of the country.
Like other officials, Rumsfeld said he did not know Saddam’s whereabouts. But he said some unidentified members of Saddam’s regime were moving out of Iraq into Syria. Citing intelligence information, he added that some were staying in Syria, while others were going on to other locations.
While Rumsfeld and other American officials cautioned that combat may lie ahead, Iraq’s U.N. ambassador told reporters that “the game is over and I hope peace will prevail.” Mohammed Al-Douri’s comments to reporters in New York were the first admission by an Iraqi official that Saddam’s forces had been overwhelmed.
Whether Saddam was living or dead, wounded or hoping to escape, the signs of his regime’s collapse were everywhere.
For the first time since Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched three weeks ago, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf failed to appear before reporters with claims of glorious battlefield victories by Iraqi troops. And for the first time in decades, Iraqis were defacing images of the man who ruled brutally for nearly a quarter century.
One wall painting was spraypainted with black devil’s horns, eyeglasses and a black chin beard. Others were set ablaze.
“We are relieved because for years we lived in anxiety and fear,” said Shamoun George, a resident of Baghdad’s Karrada district, as American troops entered the area.
“Bush, Bush, thank you,” chanted small bands of youth in Saddam City, a predominantly Shiite area of eastern Baghdad.
At the city center, a crowd gathered at the base of a large statue of Saddam inside al-Firdos (Paradise) Square.
Several men climbed up a ladder, tied a thick rope around the statue like a noose, then tried to pull it over. Moments later, a Marine briefly covered the upright statue’s head with an American flag, then replaced it with an Iraqi flag, underscoring the sensitivity that senior U.S. officials feel about entering Iraq as liberators, rather than occupiers.
Finally, the Marines brought an M88 tank recovery vehicle into position. A chain was attached to the statue, which was toppled to the cheers of watching Iraqis. Quickly, they swarmed over the downed icon, stomping it. Soon after, several men were seen dragging its severed head through the streets, and Iraqis used a sledgehammer to attack the pedestal where it once stood.
The scene was televised worldwide to an audience that included President Bush.
At the same time Baghdad rejoiced, celebration broke out in Irbil, far to the north. There was joy, too, in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, base of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
That celebration, and statements by Baghdad residents to American reporters, underscored the complexity of establishing a postwar government in Iraq.
“We will never allow them to stay. Whatever he (Saddam) has done, he is a Muslim and we are a Muslim nation,” said Ali al-Obeidim, a store owner in Baghdad.