| oops! A US Marine covers the face of Saddam Hussein’s statue with the American flag in Baghdad’s Firdaus Square. The flag was removed shortly afterwards and replaced by the old Iraqi flag. (AP)
Baghdad, April 9 (Reuters): Saddam Hussein’s rule over Iraq crumbled today as American forces swept into the heart of a chaotic Baghdad, toppling a huge statue of the man who towered over the country for 24 years.
When US Marines and tanks rolled in from the east on day 21 of the war, hundreds of people gutted official buildings and hauled off anything from airconditioners to flowers.
“People, if you only knew what this man did to Iraq,” yelled an old man standing on the road, thrashing at a torn portrait of Saddam with his shoe. “He killed our youth, he killed millions.”
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.
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 armoured vehicle, which dragged it over.
The statue, showing Saddam with one arm raised regally above his head, leaned gently downwards as if giving a parting wave and bow until it was horizontal. Then it snapped, leaving only the feet and two protruding metal bars.
The soldiers had briefly draped a Stars and Stripes flag on the face of the statue as they prepared to topple it. But the gesture could have upset Arab states and it was quickly replaced with an Iraqi flag, which hung around the neck like a tie.
There was no word on the fate of Saddam or his sons, targeted by US planes that dropped four 2,000-pound bombs on a western residential area of the city on Monday.
Neither was there any sign of Iraqi police or uniformed men on the main streets. Information ministry officials who have shadowed reporters through the conflict were nowhere to be seen.
Even information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who has turned up daily to pour abuse on the Americans and deny all their reports of advances, failed to make an appearance.
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.
Initial celebrations were concentrated on areas populated by Shi’ites, the majority community largely hostile to Saddam’s Sunni-led Baathist government. US-led forces have yet to occupy northern cities such as Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace and tribal power base, 175 km north of the capital.
Gunfire and explosions echoed intermittently across Baghdad during the day, intensifying at dusk, especially in the western Mansur district, the 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.
Sporadic shooting in parts of Baghdad prompted the International Committee of the Red Cross to suspend its operations, citing “chaotic and unpredictable” conditions.
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’ites.
“No more Saddam Hussein,” chanted one group, waving to troops as they passed. “We love you, we love you.” Some Shi'ites beat their chests as they do during the religious festival of Ashoura.