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Saddam regime loses grip on Baghdad

Iraqi officials nowhere to be seen in capital

The landmark statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square is brought down Wednesday by Iraqis and U.S. Marines.
The landmark statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square is brought down Wednesday by Iraqis and U.S. Marines.

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Crowds of cheering Iraqis greet U.S. troops in Hillah.
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Kurdish fighters are joining with U.S. forces for control of the north.
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U.S. Marines come under heavy fire at Baghdad University.
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A U.S. Marine armored recovery vehicle pulls down a statue of Saddam.
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Iraqis take to the streets in some parts of Baghdad looting government offices.
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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

• Saddam  "is either dead, or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel someplace, trying to avoid being caught."

• "The tide is turning" in Iraq, but portions of country "are still hotly contested and will be for some time."

• Intelligence reports indicate Syria was offering safe passage to members of Iraq's senior leadership and allowing some military equipment to move from Syria into Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin

Straw: "Both the Prime Minister [Tony Blair] and President Bush have committed themselves to a vital role in the reconstruction of Iraq."

De Villepin: "The United Nations has got to play an essential role" in the reconstruction effort.

Straw: Great Britain is committed to maintaining and strengthening its ties with France. "Life would be very boring if friends always agreed."

De Villepin: "I am very happy this meeting has taken place after a few difficult weeks between our two countries."
•  Commanders: U.S. | Iraq
•  Weapons: 3D Models

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Nearly a quarter-century of iron-fisted rule by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein crumbled dramatically Wednesday, sending jubilant Iraqis into the streets of Baghdad just three weeks after the U.S.-led coalition launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The security vacuum also led to widespread looting, particularly of government offices, but the streets reportedly quieted by nightfall as fearful residents ducked back into their homes.

U.S. Marines patrolled darkened streets in the capital early Thursday, where the electricity was still off in many areas.

Meanwhile, along the burgeoning northern front, coalition aircraft launched their heaviest wave of bombing yet early Thursday morning, reported CNN Correspondent Brent Sadler.

The bombing runs were designed to soften up Iraqi lines, and local Kurdish commanders told Sadler they expected to gain significant ground later in the day as the result of the strikes.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were working alongside U.S. Special Forces in the area, which is about 100 miles east of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit near the Iranian border.

They made an advance against Iraqi lines, and Iraqi troops abandoned their positions, Sadler reported.

In Baghdad, the moment of highest drama Wednesday came when U.S. Marines helped Iraqi civilians topple a massive statue of Saddam in Firdos Square in the heart of the Iraqi capital. The Iraqis then danced on the dethroned image and dismembered it.

As the head of the statute was dragged through the streets, people spat on it and beat it with their shoes -- an act considered a grave insult in the Arab world. Civilians chatted amiably with Marines and climbed on board the tank recovery vehicle used to pull Saddam's effigy from its pedestal. Full story) (Family reaction)

"The game is over," the Iraqi regime's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, Mohammed Aldouri, told CNN. "I hope that peace will prevail."

Saddam's escape?

Journalists in Baghdad reported that senior Iraqi officials didn't show up for work Wednesday, and reporters were free to move about Baghdad without the minders from the Information Ministry who normally shadowed their every move.

Among those officials not seen Wednesday was Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who had been confidently predicting a coalition defeat in recent days, even as U.S. troops were moving through the city. (Profile)

Marines also entered the home of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, finding evidence that he had left only recently -- with blankets draped over the furniture, as if he planned to return.

Aziz, one of the Iraqi leader's longest-serving and most loyal aides, has been the primary face of the regime on the international stage.

As for Saddam himself, U.S. officials said it was still unclear whether he was dead or alive after Monday's strike on a building where he was believed to have been meeting with officials.

"He's either dead, or he's incapacitated, or he's healthy and cowering in some tunnel someplace, trying to avoid being caught," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. (Full story)

Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group, said he had received unconfirmed reports Saddam and at least one of his sons had escaped to Baquba, a town northeast of the capital.

Rumsfeld again warned Syria, saying some intelligence reports indicate Syria was offering safe passage to members of Iraq's senior leadership and allowing some military equipment to move from Syria into Iraq.

"We find it notably unhelpful," Rumsfeld said. Asked what kind of U.S. action Syria might face, Rumsfeld replied, "We're still dealing with Iraq."

Rumsfeld warns fight not over

The U.S. Central Command also said Iraqi forces appeared to be regrouping in Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, and reinforcing their positions.

While cautioning that Operation Iraqi Freedom was still far from over and "there's a lot more fighting that's going to be done," Rumsfeld said the apparent collapse of the Iraqi regime on Wednesday marked "a very good day."

"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," he said.

"Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin [and] Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators, and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."

Rumsfeld conceded that "we do not control Baghdad completely," but said, "Neither does the regime."

Rumsfeld outlined several remaining tasks for the coalition: Capturing or accounting for Saddam and members of his senior leadership; securing oil fields in the north; rooting out terrorists within Iraq; finding U.S. prisoners of war; locating and securing weapons of mass destruction; and defeating all resistance.

President Bush kept a low profile Wednesday, letting other administration figures take the lead in delivering the administration's message of cautious optimism. (Full story)

''Freedom's taste is unquenchable," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "You're seeing what you see in mankind everywhere, given a chance to be free.''

Marine commanders reported Iraqi artillery firing indiscriminately into Saddam City, a poor Shiite neighborhood that had erupted into a frenzy of celebration and looting Wednesday afternoon.

During the celebrations, a Shiite leader told the crowd that "the tyrant of the world is finished, thanks to the coalition. Thank God for Iraq, the victorious." (Full story)

Street celebrations also erupted in Erbil, a city in a Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq.

Soldiers from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division secured the central Iraqi city of Hillah, south of Baghdad, site of the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reported CNN Correspondent Ryan Chilcote, who is embedded with the unit.

Crowds of cheering Iraqis greeted the troops Wednesday as they made their way through the center of the city, Chilcote reported.

Coalition forces have now largely brought under control all of major cities of south and central Iraq, including Basra, Nasiriya, Najaf, Hillah, Karbala and Baghdad, as well as Iraq's main port, Umm Qasr, and its southern oil fields.

Three large cities to the north of Baghdad -- Tikrit, Mosul and Kirkuk -- remain outside coalition control, as do the northern oil fields.

Other developments

• The United States has moved its newest -- and biggest -- conventional bomb to the Persian Gulf region, Pentagon officials told CNN Wednesday. The officials said a single, 21,000-pound MOAB bomb has been moved to an undisclosed forward base. The bomb, nicknamed the "mother of all bombs," is officially known as the Massive Ordnance Air Blast.

• Central Command said a U.S. Marine with the 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, was killed Tuesday in the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad when he was hit by sniper fire. His name was not been released pending notification of next of kin.

• U.S. Marines captured the headquarters of Iraq's 10th Armored Division near the Iranian border, along with an airfield and ammunition supply point, without firing a shot, the U.S. Central Command said Wednesday. In taking the headquarters Tuesday near Amarah, Marines from Task Force Tarawa received assistance from local citizens.

• The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was temporarily halting its work in Baghdad because of the chaos in the Iraqi capital. It also announced that a Canadian Red Cross staffer had been killed in crossfire. (Full story)

• Several hundred Arab-Americans gathered in the heart of their metropolitan Detroit community to celebrate after watching the huge statute of Saddam toppled in Baghdad. One man kicked in a large poster of Saddam's face. Many held American flags, a few held Iraqi flags. Some 90,000 Americans of Iraqi descent live in metropolitan Detroit. (Full story)

CNN correspondents Rula Amin, Dana Bash, Chris Burns, David Ensor, Tom Mintier, Diana Muriel, Walter Rodgers, Brent Sadler, Martin Savidge, Barbara Starr and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

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

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