[This story was updated on 04.09.2003 at 9:31 p.m. ET.]
With the heaviest bombing so far in northern Iraq underway late Wednesday, looting and celebrations continued in Baghdad as the regime of Saddam Hussein appeared to be coming to an end.
U.S. forces were working at softening Iraqi front lines in the north on day 22 of Operation Iraqi Freedom, just hours after coalition troops rolled into Saddam City — a poor, primarily Shiite neighborhood in the northeastern part of the capital — and were welcomed as heroes by throngs of local civilians. Young men danced in the streets in front of television cameras, hands in the air, chanting “There is only one God” and “Saddam is the enemy of God!” Others waved flags or fired rounds from rifles into the air in jubilation. (Click here for images from the front.)
In the center of the city, jubilant citizens tore down and destroyed posters and plaques of Saddam Hussein. They wrapped a noose around a statue of the former dictator and tore the symbol of oppression from its pedestal. Many stomped on the head of the statue, which was later decapitated and dragged through the streets.
Residents of Baghdad also stormed abandoned government buildings and made off with computers, office chairs, air conditioners, ashtrays and whatever else they could carry.
To the south, in Basra, British troops reported similar activity among the Shiite population there. In Erbil, a city in northern Iraq, ethnic Kurds publicly celebrated what appeared to be the demise of the Iraqi regime as well (see “Who Are The Kurds?” ).
The Shiite and Kurdish populations were among the most persecuted under Hussein’s rule. Both groups attempted uprisings against his regime in 1991 at the close of the Gulf War.
“This progress has been nothing short of spectacular,” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a press briefing. “The scenes [of citizens rejoicing in the streets] are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Despite the upbeat mood and reports that coalition forces expect to double their troop strength in Baghdad over the next 24 hours, the U.S. government said that the coalition’s work in Iraq is far from over.
“There is a great deal of work to do and many unfinished missions before victory can be declared,” Rumsfeld said. “The tide is turning. The regime has been dealt a serious blow, but coalition forces won’t stop until they have finished the job.” (Click for a map of the battlefield.)
According to Rumsfeld, major goals remaining before victory can be declared include: All of Iraq must be under coalition control and there can be no remaining pockets of resistance; Hussein and his sons, Qusay and Uday, must be captured or accounted for; the remaining forces in the Fedayeen and National Republican Guard must be tracked down; Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction must be found; and American POWs must be safely returned. Rumsfeld would not estimate how long it might take to achieve these goals.
U.S. military spokesperson Navy Capt. Frank Thorp told CNN that pockets of informal resistance to U.S. troops remain throughout the country and that Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit has yet to be secured. In addition, while citizens celebrated, a firefight broke out nearby between U.S. Marines and opposition forces at Baghdad University, and arms fire was heard west of the Tigris River in Baghdad.
During a press briefing, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Republican Guard holdouts remain in the northern city of Mosul. More than 10 regular Iraqi army divisions remain in the north, as does one brigade of the Republican Guard, said Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Still, signs that the formal Iraqi regime has collapsed were unmistakable. No Iraqi police were visible on the streets of Baghdad as residents celebrated and looted. The result was ecstatic chaos in some neighborhoods.
For the first time in 12 years, Iraqi “minders,” who trail and monitor members of the media in Baghdad, did not show up for work at the international press center at the Palestine Hotel Wednesday. And the Iraqi information minister, who so defiantly claimed that U.S. forces were being routed just a day ago, failed to make an appearance. Iraqi television even went off the air on Tuesday.
Mohammed Al-Douri, Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he has lost touch with Saddam’s government in Baghdad. “The game is over,” he said. “I hope peace will prevail and the Iraqi people at the end of the day will have a peaceful life.”
In his briefing, Rumsfeld said, “Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators. The Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom.”
However, U.S. military successes have come at a cost. Reports out of Baghdad suggest the city has suffered significant civilian casualties. Abu Dhabi TV in Iraq claims that more than 1,250 have died in the attacks on Baghdad and more than 5,100 have been wounded
Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi opposition party and the Pentagon’s first choice to be the next leader of Iraq, expressed frustration that the U.S. hasn’t provided more humanitarian aid and support for a cohesive transfer of power. Rumsfeld argued that the humanitarian problem has actually improved now that the country is no longer under the grip of Hussein.
It remains unclear if the attack the U.S. staged Tuesday to kill Hussein and his sons was a success. “It’s hard to find a single person,” Rumsfeld said, frustration evident in his voice. “It’s hard to find them when they’re alive and mobile, and it’s hard to find them when they’re buried under rubble.”
Opposition groups said Wednesday they have information Saddam survived and has escaped along with at least one of his sons, Chalabi told CNN.
The area where the bombs landed remains outside the sphere of U.S. control. According to reports, 14 civilians died in the attack, among them seven children.
The Pentagon said 96 Americans have died since fighting began. An additional eight are missing and seven are prisoners of war.
Other recent key developments:
- Japan will donate $100 million in humanitarian assistance to Iraq and neighboring countries, the country’s foreign ministry announced Wednesday.
- U.S. officials will host a conference with Iraqi opposition leaders to discuss the creation of an interim authority to replace Hussein’s regime, according to CNN. The meeting is set for Tuesday in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya.
- Against stern U.S. warnings, Syria has helped Iraqis flee across the border and provided night-vision goggles to Iraqi soldiers, according to Rumsfeld.
- There is concern in the Pentagon that weapons of mass destruction were shipped out of Iraq and might be in the possession of terrorist organizations.
- A community of Iraqis living in Dearborn, Michigan, marched through the streets holding American flags and cheering the imminent collapse of Hussein’s regime.
- Two U.S. F-15 airmen are missing after their jet was shot down Sunday in northern Iraq.
- A new audiotape purportedly of Osama bin Laden warns Muslims they are under attack from the U.S. and encourages them to launch suicide strikes on American and British targets. Authorities question the authenticity of the tape.
- The International Committee of the Red Cross has suspended its activities in Baghdad because it says the city has become too dangerous. One staffer, from Canada, was killed in crossfire.
- China and Russia released statements Wednesday saying the U.N. should play a central role in the rebuilding of post-war Iraq.
— Corey Moss, Jon Wiederhorn and Ethan Zindler