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Thanks America, but leave fast

Baghdad, April 10 (Reuters): Baghdad residents expressed relief today at the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s 24-year rule but said US forces should restore order quickly and leave, or face the wrath of an emboldened population.

“Saddam’s era was a nightmare. He was the real Dracula,” said Mehdi al-Aibi Mansur.

“Saddam killed millions of people in war and oppression, including three of my brothers,” said the Shi’ite merchant, who lost an eye to shrapnel in the ruinous eight-year war which Saddam waged on neighbouring Iran.

“A just infidel ruler is better than an oppressive Muslim ruler,” he said, quoting an early Islamic Shi’ite leader.

But Mansur said American forces which rumbled into central Baghdad unopposed yesterday, three weeks after launching their invasion to topple Saddam, should have tackled the growing chaos in the city of over five million people.

Looters ransacked offices in the Iraqi capital for a second day after Saddam’s security forces melted away, leaving US forces to fight sporadic battles across the city.

Flames poured out of the first floor of the trade ministry on the east bank of the Tigris river as people ran off with stolen furniture and computers.

Al-Arabiya television station showed pictures of Iraqis looting what it said was the German embassy in Baghdad and the French cultural centre. People were streaming out carrying water cans, mattresses and a plate rack. Even the traffic policemen abandoned their posts.

Mansur, who had moved most of his goods from the teeming Shi’ite district of Saddam City to central Baghdad to protect them from pillage, said US forces had “made a big mistake”. “They should have had a plan to preserve security.”

He also warned that if the American troops stayed too long they would face the anger of millions of people, emboldened by Saddam’s fall after decades of repression. “People are no longer afraid. Fear has escaped. People will not be afraid to rise up against the Americans,” he said.

Scenes of dozens of Iraqis trampling joyfully on a fallen statue of Saddam were broadcast around the world yesterday. But that jubilation was tinged with uncertainty a day later as people pondered their future.

“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was worrying about what was going to happen to my country. Who is going to rule us, the Americans or who'” said retired teacher Ali Suleiman.

Doctors returning to the Saadoun private hospital for the first time since the start of the US-led war on March 20 were bewildered at the rapid collapse of Saddam’s authority. “It’s very strange. He controlled the country but he didn’t defend it,” said anaesthetist Mumtaz al-Sayegh.

“We do not care who controls the streets now as long as there is water, electricity and security,” he said. “At the moment, there is no government and the looting is enormous. We are afraid for our houses.”

Mina Fayez, a 20-year-old second-year dental student, said she had not slept properly since President George W. Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom three weeks ago, unleashing a ferocious bombardment against Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

“I only want freedom. I don’t care who provides it,” she said, handing lemonade to a US soldier in a tank on Saadoun Street. “A period in our history which hurt us a lot is over. I think the coming era will be better.”

But she echoed Mansur’s wariness of the US presence. “I’m happy because of the freedom that has come with them. But even they could bring colonisation and end up hurting us,” she said.

Dalia Hinoudi, a 24-year-old biotechnology student, said: “For 20 years, I had no ambition. Now I think I will. I want a job. I want to prosper. I want to live.”

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