Saddam's regime collapses

Thursday, April 10, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Their hour of freedom at hand, jubilant Iraqis celebrated the collapse of Saddam Hussein's murderous regime on Wednesday, beheading a toppled statue of their longtime ruler in downtown Baghdad and embracing American troops as liberators.

"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living," said Yussuf Abed Kazim, a mosque preacher. A young Iraqi spat on a portrait of Saddam. Men hugged Americans in full combat gear, and women held up babies so soldiers riding on tanks could kiss them.

Iraqis released decades of pent-up fury as U.S. forces solidified their grip on the capital. Marine tanks rolled to the eastern bank of the Tigris River; the Army was on the western side of the waterway that curls through the ancient city.

Looting broke out in the capital as Iraqis, shedding their fear of the regime, entered government facilities and made off with furniture, computers, air conditioners and even military jeeps.

"We are not seeing any organized resistance," said Navy Capt. Frank Thorp at the U.S. Central Command. "The Iraqi military is unable to fight as an organized fighting force." And Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters that "the end of the combat phase is days away."

At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saddam "is taking his rightful place" alongside such brutal dictators of the past as Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin.

And while Rumsfeld and other American officials cautioned that combat may lie ahead, Iraq's U.N. ambassador told reporters that "the game is over, and I hope peace will prevail." Mohammed Al-Douri's comments to reporters in New York were the first admission by an Iraqi official that Saddam's forces had been overwhelmed.

The scenes of liberation in Baghdad and celebrations in scattered other cities unfolded as the Pentagon announced that 101 American troops had died in the first three weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Eleven others are missing and seven listed as captured. The British said 30 of their troops were dead. There are no reliable estimates for Iraqi casualties, although an Army spokesman said 7,300 prisoners had been taken.

The medical system was overrun with civilian casualties in Basra and Baghdad, cities where some of the fiercest fighting has occurred. Doctors said 35 bodies and as many as 300 wounded Iraqis were brought to the al-Kindi hospital in the capital Tuesday.

Saddam's whereabouts remained a mystery, especially so since a bombing Monday night on a building where U.S. intelligence officials believed he and at least one of his sons were meeting. U.S. special operations forces scoured the site Wednesday, looking for remains or other evidence that the four bombs may have killed the Iraqi leader. Russia's Foreign Ministry denied that Saddam had taken refuge in Moscow's embassy in Baghdad.

There was scattered fighting in the capital, including at Baghdad University, where Iraqis were cornered, the river at their backs.

Fires burned in the city after dark -- the Ministry of Transport and Communication was ablaze -- and gunfire persisted. But Pentagon officials characterized it as sporadic attacks from pockets of resistance, and said U.S. troops had been through most areas of the capital.

To the south, officials said the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment had reached Qurnah, said to be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. The troops were welcomed by cheering crowds of Ma'dan, marsh Arabs who have suffered genocide at the hands of Saddam. There was celebrating, too, in Basra, according to a British journalist who reported that rejoicing broke out after news of developments in Baghdad reached the city.

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