Iraqi-Americans Rejoice at Saddam Defeat

Members of the Iraqi community throughout the United States rejoiced Wednesday at the apparent collapse of Saddam Hussein's government.

Standing on car roofs, cheering and waving American and Iraqi flags, people in Dearborn, Mich., breathed a sigh of relief as they realized the day they never thought would come appeared to be imminent: Saddam is on his way out of Iraq for good, if he's not already dead.

"Today is my birthday," said Ali Al-Ghazali, 46, a native of southern Iraq. "But it's also the birthday for all Iraqis."

"If President Bush will allow, I would like to shake his hand," he said, standing alongside his 74-year-old father, Musa Al-Ghazali.

Southeastern Michigan is home to about 300,000 people of various Middle Eastern ethnicities. The area's Arab community is centered in Dearborn.

The sense of jubilation and relief was echoed by the dozen or so men watching the news on the Arabic language television network Al-Jazeera.

Some even had some creative ideas on how Saddam and his regime should be punished.

"Don't kill them," said Hadi Al-Baghdadi, a 42-year-old Iraqi living in Dearborn, referring to Saddam and members of the ruling Baath party. "Put them in cages in a zoo. And then we can use the admissions fees to rebuild Iraq."

Late Wednesday morning, a crowd of about 100 people and a dozen honking cars paraded by the Karbalaa Islamic Center.

"This is a day we've been waiting for for 35 years," said Feisal Amin Al-Istrabadi, a Chicago lawyer who went in late to work because he couldn't tear himself away from the television.

"It's a tremendous relief that it seems that this is the beginning of the end. I'm very, very proud to be an American today, as well as an Iraqi."

On the East Coast, Bashir Mohsen couldn't believe what he was seeing on his television: Iraqis were climbing a huge statue of Saddam in Firdos Square, tying ropes to it in order to pull it down and hacking at its base with a sledgehammer. Men and women later dragged the head of the statue through the streets with ropes.

"This is great!" said Mohsen, an Iraqi-American who runs a computer business in Jersey City, N.J. " I'm glad (Iraqi troops) gave up and realized he is not what he said he was. I can't wait for them to put a new government in."

It was the first time Mohsen, who immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, had allowed a reporter to publish his name since Operation Iraqi Freedom began. He's only now pretty sure Saddam's loyalists cannot harm his relatives living in Baghdad.

"If he was still in power, no one would be on the streets," he said. "But look at all the people!"

In Manchester, N.H., Salah Flaih, who decorated his convenience store with American flags and a life-sized cardboard cutout of President Bush, hopped up and down as he watched television images of U.S. Marines and Iraqis topple the Saddam statue.

"Oh, the Iraqi people are happy now," said Flaih, 49, a former Iraqi army officer who arrived in New Hampshire with his wife and two sons 2 years ago. "It's the happiest moment in my life. It's my liberation day."

In the Midwest, Omar Younis watched the same images in Lincoln, Neb.

"It's exciting, it's very great," said Younis, who has family living in Mosul. "I wish I was there to participate with the people."

Ithaar Derweesh, who hasn't been able to sleep more than three hours a night since the war started, said he woke up early to "the adrenaline rush of watching history unfold," seeing television images of people throwing flowers at American tanks, waving flags and removing symbols of Saddam's regime.

"It's beautiful," said Derweesh, 32, a Cleveland surgeon whose family left Iraq when he was 9 years old. "I cried tears of joy."

But not all Iraqis shared the enthusiasm.

Hussein Al-Rikabi, a former Iraqi soldier who surrendered to U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War, now lives in Paterson — also an enclave full of Iraqi nationals and exiles from other Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. Al-Rikabi was rooting for the liberation of his country at the start of the war, and encouraged U.S. troops to oust Saddam.

Two weeks later, though he took no joy from the apparent disintegration of Saddam's government.

"They're killing everyone they see," he said Wednesday. "What kind of control is that?

"This is not the way to change a government, by bombing hotels and things that belong to the people."

As Iraqi-Americans watched the looting in the streets of Baghdad and in cities like Basra in the south, they also are concerned about relatives living there, and whether they have electricity or running water.

"I'd like to see calm restored," said Al-Istrabadi, whose cousins, aunts and uncles live in Iraq. "One of my nephews is 20 years old. He has never known a regime other than Saddam's.

"So this is where the future of Iraq lies — how are they going to be able to engender and maintain these democratic institutions?"

Now, the hard work begins, said Al-Istrabadi, who is vice president for legal affairs at the Iraqi Forum for Democracy.

"The liberation of Baghdad is in many respects the easy part," he said. "How do you go about reconstructing a civil society? How do you go about reintroducing the rule of law? While I'm optimistic about the future, I also realize that it's going to be a Herculean effort."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.