BAGHDAD (Reuters)–US Marines toppled a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad on Wednesday as Iraqis celebrated the humiliating collapse of his 24-year rule.
Cheering ecstatically–a crowd of Iraqis danced and trampled on the fallen 20-foot high metal statue in contempt for the man who had held them in fear for so long.
In scenes recalling the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall–Iraqis hacked at the statue’s marble plinth with a sledgehammer. Youths hooked a noose around the statue’s neck and attached the rope to a Marine armored vehicle–which dragged it over.
There was no word on the fate of Saddam or his sons–targeted by US planes that bombed a western residential area of the city on Monday. A CIA official said he did not know if the Iraqi leader had survived the attack.
Saddam–who led Iraq through three wars and decades of suffering after taking power in 1979–had vowed to crush a US and British invasion launched three weeks ago to overthrow him.
But his forces offered little resistance on Wednesday as US troops thrust through this sprawling city of five million–amid chaotic scenes of rejoicing–looting and gunfire.
Looters gutted official buildings–hauling off anything from airconditioners to flowers. The finance ministry was ablaze late in the day–though it was unclear how the fire had started.
"People–if you only knew what this man did to Iraq,” yelled an old man’standing in the road–thrashing at a torn portrait of Saddam with his shoe. "He killed our youth–he killed millions.”
The White House said President George W. Bush was pleased with the military progress in Iraq–but remained cautious because he knew great danger could still lie ahead.
"What you’re seeing in parts of Baghdad is only that–one section of Baghdad. There are many dangerous areas of Baghdad for our armed forces that remain. There are many other cities in Iraq that are dangerous,” said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Gunfire and explosions echoed intermittently across Baghdad during the day–intensifying at dusk–especially in the western Mansur district–scene of Monday’s air raid aimed at Saddam.
Tank and artillery fire could be heard across the Tigris by Reuters correspondents on the eastern bank of the river at the Palestine Hotel–overlooking the fallen Saddam statue.
Bush’s war ally–British Prime Minister Tony Blair–said it was too early to declare military victory in Iraq.
"This conflict is not over yet. There is still resistance–not broadly spread among the Iraqi people–but among those parts of Saddam’s regime that want to cling on to power,” he said.
Marines seized a headquarters of Saddam’s feared secret police–correspondent Sean Maguire reported. The deserted Directorate of General Security building in an eastern district was already being looted when the Marines arrived.
Sporadic shooting in parts of Baghdad prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to suspend its operations–citing "chaotic and unpredictable” conditions.
It said Canadian ICRC staffer Vatche Arslanian had been killed by crossfire in his vehicle in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday night. Two other ICRC staffers in the vehicle escaped.
Jubilant crowds threw flowers and cheered as Marines drove into the city from the vast eastern township of Saddam City–home to about two million impoverished Shi’ite Muslims.
"No more Saddam Hussein,” chanted one group–waving to troops as they passed. "We love you–we love you.”
Some Shi’ites–part of a majority community largely hostile to Saddam’s Sunni-led Baathist government–beat their chests as they do during the Shi’ite religious festival of Ashoura.
As word of events in Baghdad spread–rejoicing crowds took to the streets in the Kurdish-held northern city of Arbil.
Iraqi Kurds hate Saddam for his ferocious campaigns against them. His forces used poison gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 at the height of a crackdown that killed tens of thousands–and crushed a Kurdish revolt after the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraqi troops also brutally suppressed Shi’ite uprisings after the Gulf War–when US forces failed to intervene. In Halabja–tears streamed down the face of Fakhradeen Saleem–who lost three children in the 1988 chemical attack–as he watched television images of Saddam’s government crumbling.
"How can I feel happiness or sadness after what I have been through?” the 54-year-old teacher told Reuters correspondent Mike Collet-White in the town.
Invasion forces have yet to find any banned chemical or biological arms–a key justification for the war. Saddam’s government denied possessing them.
Cheering crowds earlier sacked UN headquarters in the Canal Hotel and drive off in UN cars. The building had housed UN aid workers as well as arms inspectors–who were withdrawn shortly before the war began on March 20.
From first light–there was no sign of Iraqi troops–police or officials in the streets of Baghdad. Even Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf–who has turned up daily to pour abuse on the Americans–failed to make an appearance.
The US military said a crucial point had been reached at which ordinary people realized Saddam’s rule was over.
Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks also said the war would go on to pursue "regime appendages” in various parts of Iraq.
US-led forces have yet to occupy northern cities such as Mosul–Kirkuk and Tikrit–Saddam’s birthplace and tribal power base–175 km (110 miles) north of the capital.
US and Kurdish forces dislodged Iraqis from a mountain used to defend Mosul–their biggest victory yet in the north.
"From our perspective this is the most important gain of the northern front so far,” said Hoshiyar Zebari–political adviser to Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani.
On world markets–US stocks rose as events in Baghdad lifted investors’ hopes that the war will soon be over–although worries about the global economy capped gains. Government debt prices erased earlier gains and the dollar gained ground.
With the battle for Baghdad almost over–the issue of ruling and reconstructing a post-Saddam Iraq loomed larger.
France and Britain–papering over their differences on the war–agreed on the need for international involvement.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said after meeting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that he backed a US-British pledge to give the United Nations a vital role.
Straw said US and British troops were likely to remain in place immediately after the war to assure security.
"Britain and the United States want to see the creation of a representative–democratic Iraqi government as fast as possible–but it can’t happen overnight,” he said.
A fledgling US-led civil administration preparing to steer Iraq through the immediate postwar period said it wanted to earn Iraqis’ trust by keeping up a steady flow of aid.