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Left: Residents of the Saddam City district of northeastern Baghdad celebrate. Right: Iraqis drag a statue of Saddam Hussein through the streets. (Reuters / AFP Photos) More images from Baghdad BOSTON GLOBE ONLINE EXTRA
Iraqis celebrate US presence in Iraq
By Anne Barnard, Globe Staff, 04/09/03
CAMP SAYLIYAH, Qatar -- Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq's capital city evaporated today as US soldiers roamed Baghdad's central squares and cheering Iraqis danced on a Hussein statue they pulled down with the help of a US tank.
Invading American soldiers poured into Baghdad from several directions as the regime's rule appeared to crumble within the capital that had been the heart of Hussein's power, bringing large crowds of jubilant Iraqis into the streets for the first time since US and British forces launched the war 22 days ago.
After three weeks of punishing coalition attacks on Iraqi forces throughout the country, Hussein's police and security forces appeared to draw back from many areas in the city, and looters plundered government buildings.
But US forces still faced fierce, if disjointed, resistance in some areas of the capital, and said sporadic fighting would likely continue there for some time.
White House and US military officials cautioned that the war was not over, but declared an end to the regime's power over Baghdad, the site where the coalition had expected to face the fiercest resistance and the specter of all-out urban warfare.
"In downtown Baghdad, we're not seeing evidence of any central regime authority," Vice President Dick Cheney told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in New Orleans. "While pockets of resistance remain, they will be defeated."
In an unusually emotional opening to the daily briefing for reporters at US Central Command headquarters in Qatar, US Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said the Iraqi regime "is in disarray and much of Iraq is free from years of oppression."
He said the regime was losing control in a growing number of areas around the country, and that today, "The capital city is one of those areas." "We are at a degree of a tipping point," he said. "For the population, there is a recognition that this regime is gone and will not return. That's a very important point in the operation."
In Baghdad's Shahid Square, Iraqis surrounded a statue depicting Saddam Hussein with an outstretched arm and attacked it with sledgehammers. One man climbed up onto the pedestal and banged on the statue's legs with a shoe. The crowd threw shoe after shoe to him, and he banged the statue with each one in a gesture particularly insulting in Arab culture.
An American flag was briefly draped over the statue's face. Then someone pulled out an Iraqi flag, an earlier version without the religious slogan added after the Gulf War. Finally, a rope was draped around the neck of the statue and a tank pulled it down. Men swarmed onto it and danced, waving their T-shirts in celebration.
Nearby, one Baghdadi told Britain's Sky News not to believe that Iraq was a rich country under Hussein. "Only for his family," the man said. Asked if the Americans had come for the right reasons, the man said, "I hope so."
Residents of Saddam City, a poor Baghdad neighborhood populated by members of Iraq's long-oppressed Shi'a majority, celebrated in the streets and looted some areas this morning, US officials said, while US Marines moved into a nearby area. Clashes continued as US forces combed through the capital from the northwest, northeast, west, south, and southeast.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman told reporters: "The command and control in Baghdad appears to have disintegrated." He added, however, that US and British forces might still face "stubborn and fierce" paramilitary resistance.
In Egypt, the most populous Arab state, President Hosni Mubarak called for the creation of a government by the Iraqi people as soon as possible, a statement that seemed to acknowledge the passing of Iraq's Ba'athist Party regime -- once a symbol of Arab nationalism that hoped to unite Syria, Egypt and Iraq -- and at the same time underlined the deep concern throughout much of the world that Iraq not become a US protectorate.
At Central Command headquarters in Qatar, American military officials were delighted with the joyful scenes in Baghdad. But they insisted that in Gen. Tommy Franks' high-tech command center here, it was business as usual. They said threats remained, from pockets of Special Republican Guards in the capital to the northern cities of Tikrit and Mosul, that made it too soon to celebrate -- a point underscored by shelling heard in Baghdad today as darkness fell.
"We still have a lot of people in harm's way," said Jim Wilkinson, director of media relations for US Central Command.
The war thus far
As of yesterday, US officials said, 91 American soldiers had been killed in the war and 10 soldiers are missing. Britain suffered 30 dead, most of them in friendly fire incidents.
The 350-mile charge from Kuwait to Baghdad by the US Army's Third Infantry Division and Marines was supported by a ferocious air campaign that sent US aircraft on more than 32,000 missions, including 1,700 yesterday alone. The war unleashed more than 20,000 munitions, most of them precision-guided missiles that allowed American forces to pinpoint Iraqi government targets -- possibly including a strike Monday on a restaurant where Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay, were believed to be meeting.
The Iraqi government said Monday that more than 1,200 civilians had been killed in the fighting. The total number could turn out to be far higher. Hospitals were overflowing with patients in Baghdad today, and emergency supplies were running low as the injured poured in from the relentless US Army and Marine incursions into the city.
The anecdotes of numerous individual battles, including evidence that entire Republican Guard divisions were shot up and routed, suggested that the Iraqi casualty toll was likely to be in the tens of thousands. The number of Iraqi prisoners of war climbed to 7,000.
There was no clear evidence today whether Hussein was alive or dead, but there was little sign of any government control in Baghdad.
Hussein's power structure seemed simply to disappear. The government minders who have accompanied foreign journalists in the capital did not turn up for work today for the first time at the Hotel Palestine, where the journalists were staying -- although their disappearance en masse could also suggest they were still acting as an organized group, even in flight. A US tank shell hit the hotel yesterday, killing two cameramen and bringing the media death toll in the war to 10.
Later, Iraqis lit afire a poster of Saddam Hussein that hung above the hotel's entrance.
The public celebrations in Baghdad marked the first time that large numbers of Iraqis openly celebrated the American advance, after three weeks in which the resistance of irregular paramilitary units, Saddam Fedayeen fighters, put up sometimes surprising levels of military resistance.
The scenes of jubilation were no doubt welcome sights for President Bush and Britain's Blair, who launched the war to topple Hussein despite strong resistance from major allies such as France, Germany, and Russia, which had argued that United Nations weapons inspectors should be given more time to uncover the weapons of mass destruction that Hussein was alleged to have kept in defiance of UN orders since the 1991 Gulf War.
Bush administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had argued that Iraq's people would welcome their liberation from Hussein's 23-year dictatorship. But in addition to the sporadic military resistance, Iraqis had remained largely sullen and suspicious in the southern cities, perhaps recalling past uprisings that had fallen short of toppling Hussein -- and bringing brutal retaliation.
In Basra, Iraq's second-largest city near the borders with Kuwait and Iran, Hussein irregulars held out for most of the past three weeks. Only over the weekend did British forces, whose primary responsibility in the war to take the southern city, finally bring it fully under control.
Baghdad push similar to Basra
Today's plunge by large numbers of US troops into the center of Baghdad occurred much as the British push into Basra a few days earlier, said US Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a spokesman for US Central Command. As in Basra, armored columns probing the city found less resistance than expected, he said.
"We decided to stay because we could defeat the resistance," he said. "We were able to develop supply lines to keep those troops supplied."
More troops flowed in amid reports that the number in Baghdad had doubled overnight. Thorp declined to confirm that, but said the number was steadily increasing.
US forces reached the east bank of the Tigris River this morning after some "running firefights," in tanks and vehicles and on foot, over the main bridges in the city center, Thorp said. That paved the way for the later scenes of US soldiers standing unopposed in central squares, he said, but in neighborhoods not far from there, US armored raids continued to face resistance.
Special Republican Guards, among the most loyal fighters and those with the most to lose, continue to hold out in pockets around the city, he said. "They have a vested interest to fight and they're still fighting."
Looting was seen in some areas. Some of the celebrations and looting are in areas where the US still does not have troops, raising fears of violence or widespread chaos, which Thorp said the US would "work with the Iraqis" to prevent.
"We're seeing a lot of jubilation, and people who have long been oppressed for years and years are having choices," Brooks said. "This is a lot of pent-up energy... As we try to establish more and more security, and work more and more closely with the Iraqi population itself, we think these things will settle down."
He said he could not judge if the celebration reflected joy at the US presence.
"The reality is, it's not about us, it's about the regime," he said. "It's a recognition that the regime is gone and it will not return again."
US troops have "freedom of action," if not control, in almost continuous swaths of territory from the northwest to the center and south along the west bank of the Tigris River, Brooks said. US forces also are operating freely in areas around Baghdad International Airport in the southwest and Rasheed Airport in the southeast and an area in the northeast near Saddam City, he said.
US uniforms were found at the Rasheed Airport in southeast Baghdad, with some US service personnel's names on them, Brooks said. He declined to say whether the names matched any of the seven US prisoners of war or 10 missing solders.
A surprisingly tough area of resistance is in Al Qa'im, a town with a water pumping station on the Euphrates near the Syrian border, Thorp said, saying there was no obvious reason why it was of strategic importance.
It was unclear whether Saddam Hussein was alive or dead.
The coalition does not control the Mansour neighborhood where a US warplane bombed a building where Saddam Hussein and his sons were believed to be meeting, and has not been able to determine who was killed in that attack. But the decision of when to declare victory would not rest on finding Hussein or his remains, Brooks said.
"Cease fire doesn't have to come by way of a surrender," he said. "Cease fire is a decision."
Hussein reportedly has been avoiding his palaces and moving from house to house to elude detection, said Lieutenant Christopher Pike, intelligence officer for Third Brigade Artillery of the Third Division. During the Gulf War, Hussein practiced similar methods of self-protection, even using Baghdad taxis to change locations.
US air strikes in Baghdad lessened significantly overnight. Brooks said there would be no scenes of general destruction like those that characterized World War II takeovers of national capitals, with entire swaths of cities in ruins.
Bombing intensified, however, over Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and the area where the last organized groups of Republican Guards are believed to be.
Brooks said resistance in Tikrit, where troops from the Fourth Infantry Division are believed to be headed soon, was not expected to be signicantly tougher than what has been seen so far. The focus of US action shifted to Tikrit, Mosul and Kirkuk, a major oil center in the north.
US special forces, working with Kurdish rebels, captured a key hilltop overlooking Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, eliminating Iraqi forces' main defense of the city.
In Amara in southeastern Iraq, US troops defeated two regular Iraqi army divisions and occupied their headquarters, Brooks said. Some had abandoned their vehicles.
"What you're seeing is exactly what we expected," Thorp said. "When the Iraqi people have confidence that the grip of the regime is gone, they will be able to rise up and speak their mind."
Brian MacQuarrie reported from Baghdad, Barnard from Doha, Qatar; Susan Milligan and Robert Schlesinger of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Washington.