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U.S troops topple Saddam statue

Iraqis kick a statue of Saddam after U.S. Marines pulled it down in Baghdad's Firdos Square Wednesday.

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U.S. Marines pull down a statue of Saddam in Baghdad's Firdos Square. (April 9)
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. troops pulled down a giant statue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hours after coalition tanks rolled into the center of Baghdad Wednesday.

The statue in Firdos Square fell after a small group of Iraqis climbed the monument and wrapped a rope around its neck. A group of Marines then backed an armored vehicle up to the monument, attached a chain to the statue and pulled it down.

Before the statue fell, a Marine draped a U.S. flag over the head of the statue -- a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room in Washington and anger from a commentator on the Arabic news network Al Arabiya.

The Marines took down the U.S. flag moments later and hung a pre-1991 Gulf War Iraqi flag around the statue's neck. That flag also was removed before the statue was pulled down.

Earlier, tanks and other military vehicles took up positions around the square just outside the Palestine Hotel, where two journalists died Tuesday when a U.S. tank fired on the building.

Marines left their vehicles and fanned around the square. They were accompanied by reporters who flooded out of the Palestine Hotel, where most international journalists are based.

A few Iraqis waved and shouted to the troops, some of whom returned the waves while watching the area with binoculars. From one tank rumbling around the square, a Marine waved a U.S. flag.

"We thought we were going to get a lot of resistance, but we never did, so we just kept pushing and pushing till we got here," said Marine Cpl. Steven Harris.

U.S. Central Command Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Saddam's regime was "in disarray" and "much of Iraq is free from years of oppression."

Coalition forces control areas surrounding Baghdad's International Airport, Sujud Palace, Republican Palace and the Rasheed air base.

However, a U.S. Marine column moving into Baghdad from the east came under heavy fire at Baghdad University after being greeted by cheering Iraqis earlier in the day.

CNN's Martin Savidge, traveling with the Marines, said the campus was a battlefield, with black smoke rising from several buildings and machine-gun fire ripping past troops and journalists alike.

Earlier, residents were on the streets in Saddam City, a poor neighborhood on Baghdad's east side, looting and celebrating the apparent end of Saddam's rule. (Scene in Baghdad)

'Fierce fighting ahead'

U.S. Central Command spokesman Frank Thorp said that despite the celebrations, the war was not over.

Before the statue fell, a Marine draped a U.S. flag over the head of the statue before taking it down.
Before the statue fell, a Marine draped a U.S. flag over the head of the statue before taking it down.

Images of Iraqis dancing and cheering in the streets -- from Erbil in the Kurdish-controlled north to Basra in the south -- could indicate the end of the regime is "on its way," Thorp told CNN's Tom Mintier.

But he added: "I would hazard that there are some fierce days of fighting ahead."

The Army's 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division occupied the heart of Baghdad, and the 101st Airborne Division was approaching from the south.

The U.S. Army airlifted more armor into a coalition-controlled air base in northern Iraq early Wednesday, preparing for a push south.

CNN's Walter Rodgers, traveling with the 3-7th Cavalry, said U.S. troops have been warned that pro-Iraqi fighters may try to use emergency vehicles packed with explosives to resume their attacks.

One senior U.S. Army officer told Rodgers that intelligence reports indicate there could still be as many as 28,000 Iraqi paramilitary fighters in Baghdad.

In other developments:

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

• In the northern city of Erbil, Iraqis threw confetti, waved flags and streamers and flashed the "V" sign. Motorists honked their horns, people danced in the street and children cheered as crowds formed an impromptu parade.

• Scenes of looting played out in Basra in southeastern Iraq on Tuesday. But civilians took the law into their own hands, stoning people who were stealing food set aside for humanitarian aid to sell on the black market. (Full story)

• The United States plans to host a conference of Iraqi opposition leaders April 15 in Nasiriya, Iraq, to discuss the creation of an interim authority to replace Saddam. (Full story)

• U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will travel to Athens, Greece, on April 16 and 17 to discuss the role of the United Nations in Iraq with European Union leaders.

• Japan will contribute up to $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq and neighboring countries in response to an appeal from the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross, the government said.

• According to the latest coalition figures, 127 coalition service members have died in the war. Eight U.S. service personnel are listed as missing in action and seven held as prisoners of war. (Coalition casualties)

• The Iraqi government has released no information on military losses, though U.S. military officials have reported thousands of Iraqi military deaths. Official Iraqi sources quoted by Abu Dhabi TV say 1,252 civilians have died and 5,103 have been wounded. U.S. Central Command says more than 7,000 Iraqis have been taken prisoner of war.

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

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