U.S. cautious amid jubilation: War not over, Rumsfeld warns
By Anthony Shadid
BAGHDAD, Iraq Swept aside by U.S. troops who drove through the streets of Baghdad, President Saddam Hussein's government collapsed yesterday, ending three decades of ruthless Baath Party rule that sought to make Iraq the champion of a modern Arab world but left behind a legacy of poverty, bitterness and tyranny.
With pent-up fury, the crowds also rampaged through government offices and state-owned companies, lugging away everything from plastic chairs to Toyota pickups once doled out as patronage.
In festive moments, others tested their new-found freedoms, engaging in noisy debates in the street and denouncing Saddam in words that would have brought a death sentence only days ago.
The feared Baath Party apparatus disappeared from the streets. Its junior officials and militia fighters, once posted at every street corner and intersection, were nowhere to be seen. Many were said to have changed into civilian clothes to escape detection. Party uniforms and weapons were scattered at sandbagged positions that only days ago had been vaunted as the heart of a bloody last stand. Along some streets, military vehicles stood bleak and deserted, testimony that a once-efficient administration had come to a halt.
The fall of Baghdad and its celebration by thousands of Iraqis eager to heap scorn on their leader marked a climactic moment and a clear turning point in the war launched by the Bush administration 21 days ago to take down Saddam's government and rid Iraq of what U.S. officials said was a store of weapons of mass destruction.
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Still, U.S. officials were cautious.
"There's a lot more fighting that's going to be done," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield warned in Washington. "There are more people (who) are going to be killed; let there be no doubt. This is not over, despite all the celebrations on the street."
Since launching the invasion from Kuwait on March 20, U.S. and British forces have seized control of all the country's important centers south of Baghdad and at least two-thirds of its territory. The Euphrates River city of Hilla came under U.S. Army control today, completing occupation of the Euphrates Valley. The seizure of Baghdad added to the list the seat of Saddam's government and the heart of Iraq's old and storied civilization.
But Saddam, 65, his family, ministers and members of the ruling Revolutionary Command Council remained unaccounted for, having vanished from view in the last several days as U.S. forces closed in. U.S. officials cited radio traffic from the remote town of Qaim, in the far west near the Syrian border, as an indication that some Saddam followers might be hiding there. Several major cities have not yet been occupied by U.S. forces, including Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, and Kirkuk and Mosul in the northern oil fields.
The Pentagon has identified 85 U.S. military personnel as killed or missing in action, and about 400 wounded since the war began, a count that has often fallen behind reports from the field as it wends through the bureaucracy and families are notified. The number of Iraqi casualties has not been reliably complied, but U.S. officials have estimated it is in the thousands.
While Saddam and his sons were targeted in an airstrike two nights ago based on intelligence that they were at a meeting and vulnerable to attack, Rumsfeld said he did not know whether they were still alive.
"It is hard to find a single person," Rumsfeld said. "It is hard to find them when they're alive and mobile, it's hard to find them when they're not well, and it's hard to find them if they're buried under rubble. We don't know. And he's not been around. He's not active. Therefore, he's either dead or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel some place, trying to avoid being caught. What else can one say?"
Los Angeles Times
Iraqis celebrate by raising Iraq's flag in place of the statue of Saddam that stood in the plaza in front of the Sheraton Hotel.
Los Angeles Times
"I can tell you the fear has lifted from people's hearts," said Faleh Hassan, sitting at Abu Ahmed restaurant in central Baghdad.
It was a startling collapse for a government that had predicted only three weeks ago Baghdad would become a quagmire for invading forces and declared, with bluster and bravado, that it was debating whether to bury U.S. and British troops in mass pits or individual graves. It followed one of the quietest nights of the war in Baghdad, with only sporadic shelling and the crackle of gunfire.
The fate of Saddam and his government was a mystery that intrigued Baghdadis as well as officials in Washington. But there was no one available to ask. For the first time since the war began, Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf failed to arrive at the Palestine Hotel to deliver his daily briefing, comments that had grown increasingly bizarre as the war unfolded. Only a day earlier, he insisted with not a hint of irony that Baghdad was bracing "to pummel the invaders."
Other Iraqi officials, who appeared in public less and less as the war progressed, also were nowhere to be seen, including Saddam's two sons, Odai and Qusai. Despite the bombing of a compound in the well-to-do al-Mansour neighborhood where Saddam was believed to be hiding Monday night, many residents of Baghdad expressed belief he had survived and possibly gone to Tikrit, the home base of his clan and many of his closest lieutenants.
Many spoke of vengeance in settling scores with officials.
"If I see my enemy before my eyes, I will kill him," said Hassan, the restaurant owner. "To be honest, that goes for all Tikritis."
But scenes of celebration were more common. Hundreds of Iraqis poured into Firdaus Square in images broadcast around the world. Passing columns whose cupolas bore the initials "S.H." they headed for a statue perched above a 20-foot pedestal of purple granite. First came a sledgehammer.
Men took turns knocking chunks off the base, to the wild applause of the crowd. Then a rope tied like a noose went over its head. Finally, Marines brought an M-88 tank recovery vehicle. They tethered one leg, then two, before finally settling on a thick chain that went around the statue's neck. It fell halfway, then crashed to the ground.
All that was left was the twisted metal of his feet, two rusted pipes jutting out.
With the rage of grievances accumulated over a lifetime, they beat the fallen statue with sledgehammers, rocks, chains and their feet. In a traditional Arab insult, some slapped their shoes on it. Others made off with its head, dragged through the streets by rope.
Los Angeles Times
U.S. troops, members of the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, take up position in front of the Iraqi Transportation Ministry. Crowds rampaged through government offices, lugging things away and setting fires.
Los Angeles Times
"We love you," some shouted. Others, more angry, cried out, "No more Saddam Hussein."
Some scrambled for packaged meals-ready-to-eat that the Americans handed out, almost setting off a riot near the tanks.
Others picked flowers from a nearby park and distributed them to soldiers and anyone resembling an American. A few simply stood and stared, as curious as jubilant. For the first time in a half century, troops were rolling down Baghdad's streets with a foreign flag.
Conflicting emotions gave rise to odd moments.
"I'm not happy," Stefan Abu George said. But when a tank rolled by, he waved. Then he declared, "I love Saddam, he's courageous, he's a hero." The words set off a boisterous debate in the streets not heard in a generation.
"Saddam is a dog, a son of a dog," shouted Majid Mohammed, a 47-year-old electrical engineer.
But even Mohammed's family bore the scars of a system that relentlessly tried to link its fate to Iraq's, its leader's destiny to its own.
"I'm sad," his 12-year-old daughter Sara said as they left the scene. "They stole our freedom."
Her words pained Mohammed. "Until now, I haven't been able to speak my feelings about him."
Even amid the jubilation, the presence of the absolute ruler continued to be felt in Baghdad. Saddam became the effective head of government soon after the Baath Party took power in a 1968 coup, and formally assumed the presidency in 1979. His sudden absence opened up a horizon that was unknown and uncharted. Iraqis spoke freely, tantalized by saying words expressed only in private, in whispers. But there was a nagging sense that words were still monitored, that statements could come back to haunt them.
"Are you sure the regime is gone?" said Mohammed Abdel-Amir, a 34-year-old Shiite from Karbala.
Others had more mundane worries, such as when electricity and phones would return after a week-long interruption. For others, it was the more fundamental issue of their relationship to U.S. forces. Even in the streets, some expressed hope that the U.S. presence would not become an occupation. Others were unsettled by the presence of a U.S. flag atop a column of tanks and armor in a city whose name still resonates across the Arab world for its medieval glory.
In a country where virtually every family has a tale of suffering at the hands of the Arab world's most brutal government, the day prompted reflection over the fate of a rich country left poor and over a dictatorship that proved relentlessly durable. After three decades of powerlessness, many braced for the claims that the disenfranchised Shiite Muslim majority would make.
Uncertainty revolved as well around the major task ahead for U.S. forces in crafting a new government. Many asked whether Iraqi dinars, emblazoned with a portrait of Saddam, could still be used. If not, when would they change? Others asked when the United States would return telephones, cut off last week in a move that left the city isolated and secluded.
Kindi Hospital, which treated many of Baghdad's civilian wounded, reported one of its busiest days yesterday morning.
Some said they would not forget the civilian toll. But remarkably, many seemed to look past the war.
That future seemed to make some Iraqis more anxious. How long would the Americans stay, what did they plan to do, what government would they bring and what were their real intentions? The questions suggested the United States its credibility suffering in much of the Arab world had a window of good will in a capital that seemed genuinely thankful for the removal of Saddam's government. But how long that window lasts may become a more pressing question in time.
"It's up to the Americans what this becomes," said Nazir Mustafa, a 46-year-old watching the tanks roll down the street. "Maybe it will be colonialism, maybe it will be liberation from the regime. The truth will soon become apparent."