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U.S. troops broke Saddam Hussein's 24-year grip on the Iraqi capital Wednesday as cheering, dancing crowds shouted, "Oh, Iraq!" and, with help from the Marines, toppled a four-story statue of the president, dragging its head in the streets while children pelted it with garbage.
"Victory! We are free!" the crowds called out. "Thank you, President Bush!"
Three weeks after the United States went to war against Hussein's regime, the U.S. Army and Marines took control of central Baghdad and dealt a definitive blow to the Iraqi leader's aura of invincibility, unleashing wild celebrations as well as looting and fires.
"The game is over," Mohammed Douri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, conceded in New York.
U.S. officials echoed the sentiment. "We are seeing the collapse of the central regime authority," said Vice President Dick Cheney in a speech in New Orleans. At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who compared the toppling of Hussein's statue to the fall of the Berlin Wall, declared, "This is a very good day."
For all the celebrating, however, the war in Iraq is hardly over. U.S. and British forces, Rumsfeld said, still must gain total control of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, especially Tikrit, north of the capital, Hussein's hometown and a stronghold of his supporters.
Military sources at the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said they were assessing the strength of Hussein's military, paramilitary and civilian loyalists in and around Tikrit. One source said U.S. forces would cut off Tikrit from Baghdad and assault the city with airstrikes.
Rumsfeld said the allies also need to account for, capture or otherwise deal with Hussein, his sons and other senior Iraqi leaders; capture Mosul and Kirkuk in the north to secure surrounding oil fields; and capture or kill Iraqi fighters scattered throughout the country.
A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a peacekeeping force of more than 200,000 troops probably will be needed in Iraq to help maintain order, distribute relief supplies, restore civil services and secure suspected chemical weapons sites.
After a day of looting in Baghdad in which residents stole everything they could carry from government ministries, the city spent an uneasy night filled with scattered fighting. In an area near downtown, Marines opened fire on a taxi that didn't stop when ordered and killed three men inside.
No weapons were found.
The Marines pounded a pocket of soldiers and paramilitary fighters for long, intense periods throughout the night on the east side of the Tigris River, above the northernmost of five bridges connecting western Baghdad with the Old City.
Residents waving white flags tried to run across the bridges to flee the fighting, but units of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which held four of the five bridges, pushed them back. Some of the gunfire struck small boats that also were trying to cross the river.
"We think they're trying to buy Saddam some time to make a final stand," said Col. John Toolan, commander of the 1st Marine Regiment. The Marines held the upper hand, he said, but took nine casualties, including one death.
At daybreak today, many residents resumed looting, said Col. Geff Cooper, a Marine reservist from San Bernardino.
On Wednesday, the day had begun with sporadic fire against the Marines during the morning and early afternoon, from small pockets of poorly organized paramilitary groups. One firefight broke out near a 75-acre government complex close to the center of Baghdad. Snipers opened fire from the rooftops. Marines responded with shoulder-fired rockets and a hail of small-arms fire.
. The Marines took over the area for a command post. It was not immediately known whether there were any casualties. In the complex, the Marines found a police station, a jail, military barracks, a hospital and a headquarters of the Iraqi secret police. Cells in the jail were not much bigger than high-school lockers. There was evidence that prisoners had been fed through slots in the doors.
The 'Tipping Point'
Shortly before 5 p.m., the city reached what Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, called the "tipping point," when residents realized that "the regime is in disarray and much of Iraq is free from years of repression."
Crowds in Firdos (Paradise) Square surged toward Hussein's statue, which stood in the middle of a circular area ringed by tall columns, each topped by his initials in Arabic. In the background was a blue-domed mosque.
First the crowd tried to knock the dark metal statue off its pedestal with sledgehammers.
Then several men climbed a ladder and threw a thick rope that looked like a hangman's noose around its neck. The men tried to pull the statue over, but it was far too heavy.
Finally, the Marines took over. They drove up in an armored recovery vehicle and attached a rope and a cable from its winch and crane. They drove the vehicle forward.
The rope snapped.
Undeterred, the Marines looped a heavy metal chain around the statue's neck.
At one point, a gunshot rang out. Marine guards searched the crowd anxiously. Some people took cover. But most of the crowd stood firm.
People broke into a raucous chant: "Farewell Abassi! Farewell Abassi!" -- an Arabic word for dumbbell. Some, however, had mixed emotions. They said they did not like to see foreign conquerors in Iraq.
One Marine brought out an American flag and draped it over Hussein's head. A few people cheered, but most of the crowd muttered about seeing the Stars and Stripes raised in their city.
Then someone brought an Iraqi flag -- an old version used before 1990 that did not bear the slogan "God Is Great" in Hussein's hand. Marines and Iraqis used it to replace the U.S. flag on the statue. The Iraqis cheered.
The Marines started the winch. At first, the statue didn't budge, but finally it moved. Then it began to fall. Now it was parallel to the ground, Hussein's regally extended hand pointing straight down.
Another tug by the Marines running the winch and the statue, all but its legs, tumbled off the pedestal. The crowd cheered. People took off their shoes and beat on the back of the statue's head, a grave insult in the Arab world.
Soon the crowd decapitated the statue and pulled it through the streets around the square. Children swatted it with sticks and hurled garbage at it.
By nightfall, the statue had been replaced by the Iraqi flag flying over the square.
President Bush watched the scene on a television set in a room near the Oval Office in the White House. His press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said Bush missed the moment when Hussein's statue fell but stared at its image after it had been pulled from its pedestal and smashed to the ground.
"They got it down," the president said.
The scene at Paradise Square reminded many of the euphoria that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union more than a decade ago when the Berlin Wall was torn down and statues of Vladimir Lenin were toppled across the Soviet Union.
"We are seeing history unfold, events that will shape the course of a country, the fate of a people and potentially the future of the region," Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon.
"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."
Almost as dramatic was the looting, which began when Marines first appeared in the mostly Shiite Saddam City district of the capital.
Rioters set fire to several government warehouses and the headquarters of the Olympic Committee, headed by Hussein's son Uday, who reportedly used it to torture Iraqi citizens.
Declaring that the district was no longer Saddam City, the crowds renamed it Thora City, which means City of the Revolution. In the rampage, some people defaced and broke tiles from mosaics of the Iraqi president.
The crowds grew to thousands of screaming men, women and children. Some were dancing, but most were looting.
One man carried an old ceiling ventilator. A woman carried an empty frame with pieces of a torn portrait, apparently of Hussein, around her neck. Three men carried a sofa with two fire extinguishers lying on the cushions.
Perhaps the most audacious bit of looting came at the Olympic Committee building, where people led away the racehorses kept there by Uday Hussein. After torching the building, they moved on to the Transportation Ministry. By nightfall, it too was engulfed in flames.
Marines based at the nearby Canal Hotel sat on white plastic lawn chairs and watched the fire.
West Bank Is Quiet
In contrast, the city west of the Tigris River, which divides the capital, was quiet.
One group of three women, two men and a 2-year-old child tried to get a diabetic family member to a hospital.
Army Spc. Jamie Gandy, 19, of Adel, Ga., repeatedly walked from his Bradley fighting vehicle to the family, past the burned corpse of a woman who had died in the cross-fire of a battle two days earlier. Gandy warned the family to carry a white flag and to stop at checkpoints.
"She did not stop," he said, pointing to the dead woman. After persuading his superior officers to let the family through, Gandy relished hearing the few English words they spoke:
"That kind of brings it all together," he said. "No matter how long I'm away from home -- and I haven't taken a shower in a month -- it's worth it all to see just one person who's glad we're here."
To the south, in Basra, the country's second-largest city, British troops reported almost no Iraqi resistance to their presence. But they struggled to respond to angry residents who complained that troops had flushed out members of the Baath Party, along with police and security officials, without providing any replacement.
"The electric control center, it's just over there," said Sabah Abdul Rehman, an oil worker, speaking to a British tank commander. "We need just one soldier to guard it."
The British responded that it was not their mandate, although they were trying to do what they could. "Our biggest priority is to protect our soldiers," said Maj. Ben Farrell, with the Irish Guards. "There's still a threat."
As television carried pictures of the jubilation and rioting in Baghdad to the rest of the world, Iraqi Ambassador Douri appeared outside his mission at the United Nations in New York and told reporters: "My hope now is peace for everybody. I hope that peace will prevail and the Iraqi people, at the end of the day, will have a peaceful life."
Douri was asked what he meant when he said the game was over. Was the war over?
"Yeah, yeah," he replied.
Douri said he did not know whether Hussein was alive or where he was. "I have no communication with Saddam," he said. "So I can't tell you. I have no communication with Iraq. I am here, so I know nothing about what is going on there."
Told of Douri's remarks, Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the U.N., said: "I pay tribute to him for acknowledging [the end]. He is a decent man. I hope he finds a decent life, representing a decent government.
"He must wonder what his situation is now," Greenstock added, "and I sympathize with him."
In Moscow, spokesman Alexander Yakovenko at the Foreign Ministry denied rumors that Hussein had taken refuge in the Russian Embassy in Baghdad. He said such rumors could endanger the lives of the embassy staff there.
"This is just another attempt to put our Baghdad embassy under threat," Yakovenko said.
Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov asked Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to ensure the safety of the staff, a Foreign Ministry statement said.
The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service denied reports in a Moscow newspaper that a Russian diplomatic convoy fired upon in Baghdad on Sunday night might have been carrying secret files of the Hussein regime.
In his Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld accused Syria of providing a haven to some members of Hussein's government and helping others to additional safe locations.
"Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the movement of people out of Iraq into Syria, and then in some cases, they stayed there and found safekeeping there," he said.
In other cases, Rumsfeld said, without providing details, "they are moving from Syria to still other places."
Daniszewski and Perry reported from Baghdad. Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan and Rick Loomis in Baghdad; Mark Magnier in Basra; Tyler Marshall, Jailan Zayan and Mark Porubcansky in Doha; John Goldman in New York; Robyn Dixon in Moscow; Edwin Chen in New Orleans; and John Hendren, Esther Schrader and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.