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Since 1st March, 1999
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Tanks & thieves rule Baghdad
Iraqis loot the oil ministry storage facility in Baghdad. (AFP)

Baghdad, April 9 (Reuters): Jubilant Iraqis tied a noose around a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad and pelted it with shoes today as the Iraqi President’s 24-year rule collapsed in chaos.

Crowds cheered as men climbed a huge statue of the Iraqi President in the centre of Baghdad and placed a rope around its neck in preparation to topple it.

One man swung at the marble pedestal with a sledgehammer, another tore a metal plaque off the plinth.

The gesture of contempt for the man who led Iraq with an iron grip for a quarter of a century was watched by US troops who had rumbled into the square in tanks a few minutes earlier.

A dozen tanks and amphibious assault vehicles rumbled up to Palestine Hotel, on the eastern bank of the Tigris river, where most international media have been staying.

Marines leapt out, training their guns and binoculars on surrounding buildings, checking for snipers.

“It’s like Iraqi tanks pulling up on Fifth Avenue in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London,” said Reuters correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis, speaking from inside the hotel.

The Marines also seized what they described as a headquarters of Saddam’s secret police.

The site was being looted when the Marines arrived — a scene repeated across the city.

“The major threat was not running over the 400 looters who were stripping the place,” US Marine Major Joseph Clearfield said at the secret police building.

Residents woke to the sound of birdsong and only occasional shooting after one of the calmest nights in three weeks of war.

There were no signs of the Iraqi police or uniformed men on the main streets, and soon looting was rampant.

Looting broke out after residents awoke to discover the President’s long-feared security apparatus had evaporated.

In one part of the town, the Marines looked on as two Iraqis, one in a red boxing helmet and gloves, the other in white, walked past pushing a shopping cart full of computer equipment.

“It’s like a K-Mart in there, they’re stealing everything,” said a Marine watching the pillage of stores and buildings.

Shortly after the display of boxing attire from a ransacked sports shop, a car passed by with a man lounging in an armchair tied to the roof.

The Marines, who had pushed into the capital from the east early today to cheers and flowers from residents, urged the crowd through loudhailers to disperse. But few took any notice.

Hundreds of people gathered at intersections chanting “Bush, Bush, Bush” and displaying their booty.

Under one bridge surface-to-air missiles were parked, unmanned.

Smoke poured from the trade ministry and the bomb-damaged Olympic Committee building, the effective headquarters of Saddam’s elder son, Uday. There was no fighting and the fires seemed to have been set by the looters.

Residents had burst into government buildings even before the US troops appeared.

They carted away anything of value. And there wasn’t much.

One looter staggered under the weight of an ornamental vase half his height. Another emerged from the ministry of irrigation with a huge bouquet of plastic flowers.

The only guns on these streets were the AK-47 assault rifles of civilians who broke off looting to denounce Saddam and jump for joy in front of foreign camera crews.

One man rushing from a government building took off his shoe to hit a poster of Saddam that another looter had removed from an office wall.

Someone drew a pair of black horns on another portrait of Saddam.

In central Iraq, a crowd of Iraqis threw their shoes at a statue of the Iraqi President.

“If you only knew what this guy did to Iraq! He killed our youth, killed millions of people,” said one looter.

“No to Saddam. Thank you Mr Bush,” said an old man.

Younger men piled office chairs, tables and boxes into the back of pick-up trucks. Others emerged from a depot rolling yellow tyres.

Crowds looted government food stores used to dole out state rations and buildings belonging to the Baath party, a pillar of Saddam's three decades in power.

”It's a shame to see it happening but we're on the ground for military operations, not for policing,” said Major Mike Birmingham of the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division.

”It's going to be an issue for the eventual administration to deal with,” he told Reuters.

Cheering crowds sacked the U.N. headquarters in the Canal Hotel to the east. Until a month ago it was home to the weapons inspectors whose mission ended when Bush decided on war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam denied having.

The only shooting in the city centre was from Iraqi paramilitaries firing sporadically at U.S. forces across the river. Some sniping seemed to target civilians in the streets.

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