BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a scene of triumph and jubilation televised live throughout the world, Iraqi citizens in the heart of Baghdad -- with help from a large U.S. military vehicle -- toppled a huge statue of Saddam Hussein Wednesday and began dancing on it when it fell to the ground.
It was a historic moment: the people of Iraq conveying to the world that they are finally free of the brutal dictator who has maintained a vise grip on them for nearly 30 years.
As the 40-foot statue fell, some threw shoes and slippers at it -- a gross insult in the Arab world.
A group of Iraqi men later dragged the head of the statue down the street, taking turns riding on the gigantic head as others slapped it with their shoes.
In New York, Iraq's U.N. ambassador acknowledged that Saddam's regime has come to an end.
"The game is over. We hope that peace can prevail," Mohammed Al-Douri said as he left the Iraqi mission in New York.
Later, Al-Douri repeatedly said he hoped for peace, "and that at the end of the day, the Iraqi people will have a peaceful life."
He also said he has no relationship with Saddam and no communication with Iraq.
"I am here, so I know nothing about what is going on there," he said.
Asked about Al-Douri's comments, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "Well, I would say it wasn't a game, first," and added that it was over long before Wednesday.
"I would also say it was over when President Bush announced that the Saddam Hussein regime had refused to accept their last opportunity to cooperate with the U.N. resolution," Rumsfeld said after briefing senators on Capitol Hill.
"It was only a matter of time after that."
Earlier, Rumsfeld said that while Wednesday's events were historic, there are still dangerous days ahead.
"This is a good day for the Iraqi people," he said during a Pentagon briefing. "We will not stop until Saddam Hussein's regime has been removed from every corner of that country.
"We said from the beginning he is finished -- now [the Iraqis] are daring to believe it.
"Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."
'Only Now Will I Start Living'
Earlier in the day, American tanks drove straight into the center of Baghdad, to Firdos Square, and Iraqi citizens poured into the street, some taking their shirts off and waving them around in celebration.
Before an American M-88 tank recovery vehicle yanked the statue down, U.S. troops -- with the aid of an Iraqi man -- put an American flag over the statue's face, then replaced it with an Iraqi flag. Both were taken down before the statue was toppled.
Iraqi men took turns swinging a sledgehammer to the statue's base.
"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day," said Yusuf Abed Kazim, a Baghdad imam who was pounding the statue's pedestal. "Only now will I start living. That Saddam Hussein is a murderer and a criminal."
Other Iraqis picked flowers from a nearby garden and handed them to Marines.
U.S. troops walked around the square, east of the Tigris River, checking rooftops for snipers.
"He's [Saddam] kept us on our toes but we're ready to be finished and go home," one Marine told Sky News.
One Iraqi was asked by Sky News reporter David Chater what the coalition presence means for him.
"It's safety for me ... they don't hurt anyone," he said. "All the people here is happy -- I see happy."
"We were nearly mobbed by people trying to shake our hands," said Maj. Andy Milburn of the 7th Marines.
Heavy Fighting Near Scene of Celebration
But in another part of the capital, the Marines were in a fierce firefight with Saddam's Republican Guard. Fighting was particularly intense around Baghdad University.
"There's no question that there's difficult and dangerous days ahead," Rumsfeld said.
A Marine unit came under heavy fire near a bridge, and loud explosions went off.
"It's still a combat situation. We have to stay on our toes," said U.S. Central Command Capt. Frank Thorp.
The house of Saddam's son Uday reportedly was on fire.
Members of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fought with holdout Iraqis, while the 3rd Infantry Division conducted armored raids within the city.
"The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of where the regime does not have control," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at a Central Command briefing in Qatar. But he added: "There is still work to be done."
The White House said President Bush is pleased with the progress, but warned that danger may still lie ahead.
Saddam loyalists continue to hold out in the north and there's still a threat of weapons of mass destruction
Fox News' Rick Leventhal, embedded with Marines a few miles east of the jubilant Baghdad square scene, said U.S. troops are still wary.
"They're still on guard here because there's still a threat from snipers, from Baath Party loyalists, from fedayeen and from soldiers who have taken off their uniforms but have weapons and are still shooting at marines," Leventhal said.
There are "significant pockets" of resistance in the north, Jim Wilkinson, spokesman for U.S. war chief Tommy Franks, told Fox News. "We'll continue to go where those pockets are and destroy them."
Meanwhile, looting sprees continued in parts of Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, now under British control.
At police stations, universities, government ministries, the headquarters of the Iraq Olympic Committee, looters made off with computers, furniture, even military jeeps.
"Thank you, thank you, Mr. Bush," some shouted. An elderly man beat a portrait of Saddam with his shoe, while a younger man spat on it.
Focus on Tikrit
U.S. commanders focused attention on targets to the north -- including Tikrit, still a stronghold of loyalist troops, and the northern city of Mosul.
Special operations forces and air strikes were "actively engaging" Iraqi forces in both cities. Coalition aircraft were striking military targets.
Tikrit -- population 260,000 -- is defended by well-trained troops, and home to many of Saddam's most devoted followers.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said Saddam is hiding in Tikrit.
The Bush administration still doesn't know if Saddam is alive after Monday's bombing of a site in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.
Coalition forces still don't have the site in their control.
It could take two to three more days to complete DNA testing once a body is found.
U.S. forces steadily expanded their reach in more quiet parts of Baghdad, securing a military airport, capturing a prison, setting fire to a Republican Guard barracks.
Iraqi state television was still off the air. Foreign journalists said their "minders" -- government agents who monitored their reporting -- didn't turn up for work.
Also, there was no sign of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf.
Rumor: Russia Harboring Saddam
The Web site of Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera said Saddam is holed up inside the Russian Embassy in Baghdad.
The Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow neither confirmed nor denied the report to Fox News. The Russian Embassy in Washington denies that Saddam is in its Baghdad Embassy and said 12 people are still there.
State Department sources told Fox News that officials there are "downplaying" the rumor. But apparently the "phone lines are buzzing" between Washington and Moscow for a direct response.
Ahmad Chalabi, the once-exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said in a TV interview that he heard from sources inside Iraq that Saddam and his two sons had survived the bombing and were in a town northeast of Baghdad when the Marines arrived.
Fox News' David Lee Miller, James Rosen, Eric Shawn, Teri Schultz and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.