| An Iraqi woman celebrates in Baghdad after the capture of Saddam Hussein. (AFP)
Baghdad, Dec. 14: Gunfire resounded in the streets and Iraqis danced and waved flags in Baghdad’s teeming neighbourhoods in celebration of the capture of their former leader, Saddam Hussein, by American forces.
On Karada Street, a busy commercial strip in central Baghdad, Iraqi men pulled out AK-47s and pistols and squeezed off shots into the air, littering the streets with hundreds of bullet casings.
At one corner, an impromptu band formed, with men banging on drums while their friends fired guns in front of them. Cars raced down the street and men with AK-47s leaned out the windows, spraying the air with gunfire, while others fired from balconies.
Iraqis said they had not seen such celebrations in the streets since perhaps the end in the late 1980s of the disastrous Iran-Iraq War. “It will be a new start for peace,” said Said Jassim al-Yasseri, 34, the imam, or head cleric, of a Shia mosque. “This is a new day for the country. Saddam should at least get the death penalty.”
More than a hundred Shias marched down the middle of one street, carrying red and green flags with the names of the most famous Shia clerics.
“Saddam has been captured, death to the Baathists,” they chanted, referring to Hussein’s much-feared political party. One man broke away from the march and ran up to a reporter, yelling, “This is the greatest day in Iraq.”
Under Hussein’s rule, Shias, who make up about 60 per cent of the population, were persecuted. Hussein was a Sunni, and he was intent on keeping followers of that branch of Islam in power. The greatest resistance to the American occupation has come from towns in the so-called Sunni Triangle in central Iraq.
While the celebrations were chaotic in most of the city, stunned residents in at least one Sunni neighbourhood reacted with sullen disbelief at the initial reports of the capture.
“Let them show us it is real,” said Abu Mohammad, a resident of Adhamiya, where, in last April, Iraqis recounted a tale of how Hussein paid a visit to the local mosque and greeted a throng of well-wishers who kissed his feet.
Abu Mohammad’s Sunni-dominated neighbourhood was a Baathist stronghold where Hussein had found much of his support. “Let them put pictures of Saddam Hussein on television so that we know it’s him,” Abu Mohammad said.
The US military broadcast footage of the man who had ruled Iraq for decades with an iron fist. But instead of Hussein sitting proudly at a conference table in military uniform, as Iraqis had grown accustomed to seeing during his rule, the footage showed him dishevelled, rubbing his hands down his bearded cheeks, and throwing back his head as an American medic pressed a tongue depressor into his open mouth.
In the Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, not many of the residents have satellite television, so the news did not spread as quickly. But when it did, residents wasted no time in mocking the man who they blame for the disappearance and execution of thousands of Shias.
Young men who had seen the video footage of the dishevelled Iraqi leader mimicked the way he stroked his beard, or rubbed the side of his face, or they mocked him for being plucked from his underground hole.
“He is a coward. Just like a rat!” shouted one man. “He looks like a beggar!” said another.
“He is finished!” said a third.
“Saddam destroyed us,” said Hussein Nasar Jassim, 20, as he pulled a fistful of candy out of a cardboard box. “I hope he’s tried in public, and all the Iraqi people will see this.”