BAGHDAD, Iraq – Witnessing Saddam Hussein's power stripped away, hundreds of Iraqis rushed to take everything else Wednesday: They used pickup trucks and wheelbarrows to haul off everything from refrigerators to flower pots from government ministries, police stations and state companies.
Emboldened by the sight of U.S. troops taking control of the capital, they not only dared to loot but also to celebrate Saddam's fall, to vandalize his image and to call him a criminal -- offenses that just days or weeks ago could have brought arrest, imprisonment, torture, even death at the hands of the secret police.
They also danced in the streets, waving rifles, palm fronds and flags, pumping their arms in the air and flashing the V-for-victory sign.
Among the sites looted: the state-owned Oil Marketing Co., traffic police headquarters, and Iraq's Olympic headquarters, which was said to be the site of a torture center run by one of Saddam's sons. The looters took computers and other appliances, tires, bookshelves, tables, even Iraqi jeeps.
There were no immediate reports of any attempts by the Iraqi government to restore order.
On a Baghdad street, a white-haired man held up a poster of Saddam and beat it with his shoe. A younger man spat on the portrait, and several others launched kicks at the face of the Iraqi president.
"Come see, this is freedom. This is the criminal, this is the infidel," he said. "This is the destiny of every traitor. He killed millions of us."
The outburst came after one of the quietest nights in Baghdad since the war began raised hopes that the worst of the fighting was over and that Baghdad had fallen to the Americans.
The U.S. Central Command was "cautiously optimistic" about the jubilation in the streets.
"All of us have come to expect the absolute worst behavior from this dying regime, so it's important to remember that tough fighting may lie ahead," said Lt. Mark Kitchens, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
"However, we are heartened by what we are seeing, and feel a sense of warmth that the citizens of Baghdad are taking to the streets to celebrate their freedom."
Still, another Central Command spokesman, Navy Lt. Mark Kitchens, said of the looting: "It is certainly something we discourage, and when and where we can make a difference we will certainly try to do so."
At Saddam City, a poor, predominantly Shiite area that has long been considered a hotbed of anti-Saddam unrest, hundreds of Iraqis cheered American troops. Small bands of youths tore down portraits of Saddam and chanted, "Bush! Bush! Thank you!"
On Palestine Street, where Saddam's ruling Baath party as recently as a few weeks back held rallies and shows of force, gangs of youths and even middle-aged men looted the warehouses of the Trade Ministry, coming out with air conditioners, ceiling fans, refrigerators and TV sets.
Boys as young as 15 or 16 walked menacingly, clutching Kalashnikov rifles. Celebratory gunfire sent motorists and pedestrians rushing in all directions.
Overnight, only a few blasts shattered the quiet. Explosions, tank shelling and gunfire rang out after daybreak, but the fighting was described as only sporadic resistance to U.S. forces trying to expand areas of the capital under their control.
The Army was pushing across the city from the west and the Marines from the east, and they hoped to link up Wednesday. U.S. forces were securing routes into the capital, repelling ambushes and trying to hunt down roving bands of fighters made up of three or four people.
The majority of regular Iraqi army soldiers and Republican Guard troops are believed to have deserted and gone home. Uniforms, boots and weapons litter the streets and fill fighting positions throughout the city.
The Arab-language satellite TV station Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. reported from Baghdad that there was no sign of any Iraqi government or military presence in the city.
Neither Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf nor any ministry "minders" showed up at the Palestine Hotel, where hundreds of journalists are staying. The Iraqi government had assigned "minders" to escort journalists as they did their reporting, and Sahhaf gave daily briefings where he declared that Iraq forces were slaughtering the invaders and on the verge of victory.
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, had said on Tuesday that he fully expected looting in Baghdad, as well as elsewhere where there is "a vacuum in terms of control." But he added: "I think as time goes on, more law and order will be established. Ideally that goes by way of the Iraqi populations taking care of themselves."
Early Wednesday, shortly after midnight, a sudden flash of light illuminated the sky over Baghdad, accompanied by a loud clap. This time, though, it was not a continuation of the nearly three straight weeks of Baghdad under attack: It was a thunderstorm.
Thick black smoke rose from several areas, but more and more of the fires started by the Iraqis to cloak targets in the city have fizzled out in the past few days, possibly because the fuel has run out and the Iraqis are not able to reach them to replenish the fuel.