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Iraqis attacking symbols of Saddam

U.S. troops draped Stars and Stripes over statue -- then removed it.
U.S. troops draped Stars and Stripes over statue -- then removed it.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Jubilant residents of Baghdad attacked the symbols of Saddam Hussein's 24-year-long iron rule Wednesday as his regime crumbled.

Iraqis danced and waved the country's pre-1991 flag in central Baghdad's Firdos Square after U.S. Marines helped to topple a larger-than-life statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Iraqis had begun tearing down portraits of Saddam and throwing shoes and in scenes reminiscent of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, they took a sledgehammer to its marble plinth after a column of Marines advanced into the square Wednesday afternoon.

Several hundred Iraqi men waved and shouted to the U.S. soldiers in the square, opposite the Palestine Hotel where two journalists died Tuesday when a U.S. tank fired on the building. (Media deaths)

"It's like Iraqi tanks pulling up on Fifth Avenue in New York or Picadilly Circus in London," Reuters correspondent Khaled Yacoub Oweis said from within the hotel.

A small group of men climbed the statue and attached a rope around its neck. Then a group of Marines backed an armored recovery vehicle up to the monument and attached a chain to the statue, which was erected last April to mark Saddam's 65th birthday.

About the same time, a Marine draped the American flag over the head of the statue -- a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arabic news network Al Aribiya.

The crowd was happier to see the Marines take down the U.S. flag moments later and hang an Iraqi flag from before the 1991 Persian Gulf War around the statue's neck. That flag also was removed before the statue was pulled down.

The Iraqis broke the statue into pieces and dragged its head around through the streets while others -- including children -- pounded it with shoes, an act considered a supreme insult in the Arab world.

But just two miles away from the jubilant scene in Firdos Square, open warfare came to the campus of Baghdad University, where Marines came under heavy fire and barreled onto campus, returning fire.

And in other areas, Iraqis took advantage of vanished regime security to break into buildings -- particularly government buildings -- and come away with office supplies, refrigerators, chair and whatever else they could handle.

In Saddam City, a poor neighborhood on Baghdad's east side, dozens of people were seen hauling off furniture, fixtures and office supplies -- many using wheelbarrows and pickup trucks, with no security forces to stop them.

Among the items carried away were new leather office chairs -- some still wrapped in plastic.

Other residents were on the streets celebrating the apparent end of Saddam's rule, laughing and waving the black Shiite flag.

Images of central Baghdad broadcast Wednesday by Lebanese television showed Iraqis buying food, talking animatedly in groups and going about their daily routines.

A Shiite Muslim leader told a crowd of about 400 people in Saddam City: "The tyrant of the world is finished, thanks to the coalition. Thank God for Iraq, the victorious.

"God is great. Thank God who helped us finish the tyranny," he added.

One man stood on the sidewalk, pounding his shoe against a large poster of Saddam.

An American soldier in central Baghdad Wednesday.
An American soldier in central Baghdad Wednesday.

There were no soldiers or police to act as security forces, sources in the capital city told CNN. The sources said cheering crowds welcomed U.S. Marines with flowers. U.S. commanders said organized Iraqi resistance seemed to have ended.

ITN reporter John Irvine told CNN that across Baghdad he saw scenes of celebration and looting -- some of it contentious as Iraqis battled each other for the spoils.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said military officials believed the looting would "die down" as emotions returned to normal.

At the Canal Hotel, where U.N. weapons inspectors were based, U.S. Marines stopped looters who were about to drive away in the U.N.'s white vehicles, Irvine said.

At the offices of the Iraqi secret police, he said, Iraqis ripped down four portraits of Saddam, doused them in fuel and set them afire -- "finally able to show how they feel."

"I saw no evidence of the Iraqi army," he said. "No sign of Saddam's famed Fedayeen."

Irvine said it seemed as though the Iraqi fighters had realized "resistance is futile."

In Doha, Qatar, U.S. Central Command officials struck a cautious note.

Iraqi civilians push carts loaded with goods after looting a government warehouse in a Baghdad suburb.

"Obviously, the situation is developing very rapidly" in Baghdad, said Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for the British military at Central Command.

"We will certainly tell the Iraqi people in Baghdad as clearly as we can that it appears this regime's days are very very short now -- they're numbered."

While U.S. military officials warned that more fighting with forces loyal to Saddam could lie ahead, a senior Army officer said "the majority of Iraqi forces [in the Baghdad area] have now given up."

"I believe that Baghdad -- that once it is fallen and control is established -- that it will send a very powerful message to the rest of Iraq that any further resistance is futile."

Another indicator that the structure of the Iraqi government was crumbling, sources in Baghdad said, was the absence Wednesday of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf.

Sahaf -- the daily face of Saddam's regime -- did not show up for work at his ministry's office in the Palestine Hotel.

Lockwood said Sahaf had canceled his daily press briefing Wednesday. Also missing were all the other Iraqi officials who work with the ministry, including the minders assigned to accompany each journalist on every venture outside the hotel.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.

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