Iraqis jammed the streets of Baghdad on Sunday, honking horns, waving flags and firing pistols in a display of emotion over the capture of a dictator who had gripped them in both fear and fascination for more than a generation.
But as the initial shock of Saddam Hussein’s arrest wore off and Iraqis caught their first televised glimpse of the man many had secretly imagined to be defiantly waging a resistance campaign from some palatial underground command center, the sight of the scraggly, broken captive hit many of them like a slap.
Hussein’s capture in a grubby root cellar with only two inconsequential guards nearby stunned a people long indoctrinated to believe their leader was American imperialism’s worst nightmare.
Many expressed the hope that Iraqis could now move on to building a free and prosperous society.
“I am an old man now. My youth was confiscated by Saddam,” said Abu Faleh, a 60-year-old security guard. “But I can rejoice for my sons that he has been arrested. Now their futures will be better than mine.”
Some simply vented their anger and disgust with Hussein. But others warned that Iraq would not progress until the Americans left.
“The American soldiers dragged him from beneath a pile of vegetables. He didn’t even resist,” said a disgusted Ali bin Hussein, who had been punished by the tyrant because of his support for restoration of the monarchy. “He was found hiding like a rat.”
The glee of Muhanad Mohammed, 40, was likewise tainted by the image seen around the world of the deposed Iraqi leader submitting to an oral exam by a medic wearing white surgical gloves.
“When I saw and heard about the way he was captured, I was ashamed,” Mohammed said. “He should have fought to the death or committed suicide on the spot. Even a cornered cat would have put up a fight.”
As 37-year-old Ali Farhad, a leather factory owner, watched the videotape of an unwashed and cooperative Hussein that was shown repeatedly on coalition-run TV, he bore a look of revulsion. “He never shot a single bullet,” Farhad said in disbelief. “He always cast himself as the big enemy of Americans. But the truth is, he is a coward.”
Many residents of Baghdad, which is faring better than many of the provinces under occupation, cheered the U.S.-led coalition for delivering their hated former leader to face justice. Some broke down in tears, overcome with emotion and the idea that a future in freedom and democracy had just become more likely.
From the traffic snarls that paralyzed central Baghdad for hours after the announcement of Hussein’s capture to the celebratory gunfire that rained falling bullets on the population, the capital was a caldron of emotions.
Accustomed to sporadic rumors of Hussein sightings and his imminent capture, many initially were skeptical. But that changed when they saw him on TV.
Pharmacist Suad Abdulsattar expressed hopes for national reconciliation among the diverse peoples Hussein set against each other. “With his departure, a black period in our history has ended,” he said, adding that he considered the former leader to be mentally ill.
Mohammed Sadiq Yassin, a prominent merchant, donned his best suit and visited the offices of Americans in his neighborhood to thank them for ending the nightmare of uncertainty besieging Iraqis.
“My wife can sleep peacefully for the first time tonight,” he declared to all who would listen. “We feel real happiness and want to thank Mr. Bush.”
Those more focused on the struggle of economic survival, like many in the mile-long lines for gas in the fuel-short capital, said Hussein’s capture was unlikely to improve Iraqis’ lives.
“Saddam has been nothing but a menace to all Iraqis. But I’ll tell you one thing: There won’t be any security or progress here until the U.S. leaves this country,” warned Nadir Abdul Kareem, a 30-year-old minibus driver who heard of Hussein’s arrest after about three hours in the gas line.
As initial jubilation settled into resentment over the past regime’s crimes, many young Iraqis’ moods slipped from euphoria to anger.
“May he be damned!” 19-year-old student Anas Sami said of Hussein, recalling that Hussein’s Baath Party henchmen executed two of his uncles in the early 1980s, around the time he was born. “He’s a thief and a plunderer of the Iraqi people.”
About 50 members of the Iraqi Communist Party, banned under Hussein, celebrated their tormentor’s detention with a rally at an already gridlocked square at nightfall. They waved red banners with the hammer and sickle and demanded a course for socialist revolution.
But in the predominantly Sunni Muslim enclave of Adhamiya, disgruntled youths and members of Hussein’s Baath Party protested in support of him.
“Saddam is the son of Islam!” a surly pack of about 30 teenagers chanted as they fired AK-47 assault rifles into the air.
Several brandished grenades and sticks of dynamite. As they marched and shouted curses against the American occupiers, their number swelled to several hundred. Shop owners shuttered their businesses for fear of rioting and looting.
Khalid Douri, 21, insisted that Hussein’s downfall changed nothing because the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council was as corrupt and incompetent as the toppled Baathists.
“Nothing will change,” he said. “The resistance will go on.”
Salar Jaff, Sameer Mohammed and Said al-Rifai of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.