BAGHDAD, Iraq-Elated crowds of liberated Baghdad residents handed yellow flowers to U.S. Marines on Wednesday. They flashed V-for-victory signs at passing U.S. Army tanks. They tied a rope noose around a towering statue of Saddam Hussein and they pulled it down.
“It’s in the end game now,” said Marine Capt. Mike Martin as thousands of Baghdad residents swarmed around his troops, welcoming them with expressions of gratitude.
“The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of places where the regime has lost control,” said Gen. Vincent Brooks at allied headquarters in Qatar, Brig.
“The regime is gone, and it cannot be returned.”
Though many Baghdad residents remained indoors, Saddam’s fate remained unknown and skirmishes raged elsewhere in the country, startling images flowed from the capital, many of them reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin wall.
At Firdos Square in the very center of Baghdad, crowds gathered around a huge statute of Saddam.
At 6:50 p.m. local time (10:50 a.m. EDT), the statue fell, tugged off its pedestal by a U.S. armored vehicle. Iraqis rushed to the fragments and danced atop them.
At the same time, many Iraqis looted abandoned government buildings and other sites, particularly the Al-Sinaa sports complex that held thousands of new athletic shoes and was alleged to be the site of an Iraqi torture chamber.
Gunnery Sgt. Craig Lawrence, 41, a Marine platoon leader, sat in the gun turret of his armored vehicle as the crowd milled around him, cheering and clapping.
“I’ve been training for 20 years,” Lawrence said. “But we never trained for this.”
U.S. military officers cautioned that the war was not yet over.
“The forces that are in Baghdad still have combat work to do,” Brooks said. “There are still pockets. We haven’t located every leader of the regime, we haven’t found every instrument of the regime.”
Marines reported occasional, indiscriminate Iraqi artillery fire on the eastern suburb of Saddam City.
“You always worry about what’s out there, but at this point it really appears as if they are beginning to crumble,” said Lt. Col. Nick Morano at the combat operations center of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“Whether or not the regime still has its head remains to be seen,” said Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, who commands the Marine force. “I think it will die hard.”