Published April 10, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – They used shoes and slippers, sledgehammers, cardboard boxes, sticks and garbage. Joyous Baghdad residents pelted, swatted and swung just about anything they could find Wednesday at the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein -- the most potent symbol of the Iraqi leader's stunningly swift demise.
"Now my son can have a chance in life," said Bushra Abed, pointing to her 2-year-old son, Ibrahim, as they watched the statue come down in central Baghdad with the help of U.S. Marines -- images that were broadcast throughout the Arab world and beyond.
Hours later north of Baghdad, U.S. Marines took control of a palace early Thursday after a fierce, three-hour fire fight in which they used heavy machine guns. An undetermined Iraqi force firing rocket-propelled grenades hit some American vehicles, killing one Marine from the 1st Marine Division and wounding at least eight. The palace, on a 13-acre site, was heavily damaged.
In east-central Baghdad, Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine infantry awoke Thursday and made coffee in small stoves on the hoods of their Humvees near the Olympic stadium. There were short exchanges of gunfire during the night as Marines manned checkpoints and occasionally shot up illumination flares.
On Wednesday, there were signs of mixed emotion toward U.S. forces. Marines briefly covered Saddam's face with an American flag, and were greeted with silence. They quickly replaced it with the Iraqi flag, to cheers from the crowd.
There was also scattered sniper fire directed at the U.S. troops, and fighting broke out in some parts of the city. In one neighborhood, hundreds of Iraqis who'd been cheering American troops came under heavy automatic weapons fire at sunset, apparently from Iraqi fighters. At least six people were killed in a car riddled by bullets.
But mostly, it was a day for celebrating -- when fear of the regime began to melt, and hope surged across the Iraqi capital.
Watching U.S. troops move through the city in armored convoys, people flooded the streets to cheer. Women lifted their babies for the soldiers to kiss. Young men shouted in English, "Bush No. 1, Bush No. 1."
Some men, swept up by the emotion of the moment, rushed into the streets wearing only their underwear to greet the Marines.
"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living," Yussuf Abed Kazim, a mosque preacher, said as he whacked tile and concrete off the pedestal of the toppled statue.
Many in the crowd beat their chests and chanted, "There is a burning in our chests," a Shiite Muslim slogan. Celebrations were particularly strong in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods, like Saddam City in the northeast. In one area, hundreds of jubilant Shiites shouted, "There is no God but Allah!" waving palm fronds and prayer stones.
Shiites make up the majority in Iraq but have long felt oppressed at the hands of Saddam's largely Sunni Muslim government.
With no one to police them -- and certainly no sign of Saddam -- some Iraqis went on a looting rampage, mostly against installations of the government that ruled them for decades: ministry buildings, the state-owned Oil Marketing Co., traffic police headquarters, even Iraq's Olympic headquarters, said to be the site of a torture center run by Saddam's eldest son, Odai.
Youths stripped tires off military vehicles. Men made off with a police car, pushing it down the street and waving its red-and-blue roof light in triumph. One man tottered down the street carrying an elaborate vase half his height. Others hauled ceiling fans, refrigerators, TV sets, computers, appliances, tires, bookshelves and tables from government buildings.
A woman, possibly in her mid-70s, grabbed a mattress from a furniture shop on al-Saadoun Street and dragged it with considerable difficulty across the street on her way home. Two young men stole gold-rimmed copies of the Quran from a bookshop.
One Iraqi, expressing his disgust at the looting, said: "We are now afraid of other Iraqis, not the Americans."
But the enduring symbol of the day was surely the toppling of the towering Saddam statue, a gesture that recalled the frenzied euphoria that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union more than a decade ago. Then, it was a statue of Lenin that came tumbling down.
Saddam's statue in al-Firdos (Paradise) Square was in the same Soviet style, depicting the Iraqi president standing tall in a civilian suit, right arm raised in a wave to his people. It was one of his most popular poses; tens of thousands of his images can be found in this nation of some 26 million people.
This one stood in the middle of a large roundabout ringed with columns in front of the blue-domed Shahid, or Ramadan 14th, Mosque. The tops of the columns are engraved with Saddam's initials.
It began in the afternoon, when the crowd tried to knock the metal statue off its pedestal by chipping away at the base with sledgehammers. That didn't work. Then they tried a rope around the neck. Still no success.
Finally the Marines stepped in, with a winch on a tank recovery vehicle. The first pull brought the statue onto its stomach, dangling off its 25-foot-high pedestal as the crowd pelted it with garbage.
Another tug, and it broke in half, leaving only the twisted metal of the feet with two rusted pipes sticking out.
With the 40-foot bronze statue now flat on the ground, men surged forward and climbed on top of it, dancing on the chest and face before beating it with sledgehammers. "Hit the eye, hit the eye," one of them cried.
Iraqis and U.S. Marines hugged, high-fived or shook hands. Some of the Marines held their rifles aloft in a victorious pose. Women ululated and men cheered. Groups of men offered prayers of thanks.
Others dragged the torn-off head through the streets, while children rode it and beat it with shoes and slippers -- a grave insult in the Arab world.
"I don't like to see a foreign army in Iraq," said Abed, the mother who watched the statue come down. "But all those who tried to get rid of him were killed. We have no choice, we lived in so much fear," she said.
Not all Iraqis agreed, and some were angered by the felling of Saddam's likeness.
"This is the destruction of Islam," said Qassim al-Shamari, a 50-year-old laborer in a beige robe. "After all, Iraq is our country. And what about all the women and children who died in the bombing?"
Store owner Ali Al-Obeidi directed a warning at the presence of U.S. troops. "We will never allow them to stay," he said. "Whatever he [Saddam] has done, he is a Muslim, and we are a Muslim nation."
There was considerable sniper fire as U.S. troops moved through the city. Marines traded small arms fire with forces in a building near the Interior Ministry. There was also heavy fighting around Baghdad University, located in a loop of the Tigris River south of the city center.
At a former Republican Guard military installation in the city, now a base for some U.S. Marines, eight prisoners knelt in the dirt, hands behind them and hoods on their heads. Soldiers said they were suspected Islamic militants from France, Algeria, Egypt and Jordan. A battalion commander said they were mercenaries who'd come to Iraq "to do only one thing, and that is to kill Americans."
Iraq has claimed that thousands of Arab volunteers seeking martyrdom have arrived in the country to fight U.S. troops.
During the celebrating at al-Firdos Square, Ali Abu Omar, a 40-year-old engineer at the nearby Ibn al-Haitham hospital, asked a reporter to come away from the crowd.
"These are the very people who cheered Saddam for years," he whispered, pointing, apparently still fearing the "ears" of the regime that has terrified Iraqis for nearly 30 years.