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U.S. Military: Hussein No Longer in Charge of Baghdad

By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 9, 2003; 10:22 a.m.

After three weeks of war, Saddam Hussein no longer rules Baghdad.

U.S. tanks rolled unmolested into the center of Baghdad today to a tumultuous welcome from the city’s jubilant residents. The White House and U.S. military leaders proclaimed an end to Hussein’s control of the capital city, stopping just short of declaring victory in the campaign to oust the Iraqi president and destroy his regime.

Television cameras showed stunning images of American troops, weapons at the ready, walking on the streets of Baghdad among residents celebrating the downfall of Hussein after more than two decades of police-state control.

Baghdadis poured into the streets in celebration, waving at U.S. troops and tearing down posters and busts of Hussein. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraqis attacked a giant statue of Hussein with sledgehammers and attempted to pull it off its pedestal with a rope around the neck.

At the same time, firefights continued around Baghdad’s perimeter as U.S. Marines mopped up isolated pockets of resistance. Senior military commanders said fighting could still lie ahead against remnants of Iraq’s military forces and militias, especially in Hussein’s family center at Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, but it was clear that they believe a critical milestone has been passed.

"In downtown Baghdad we’re not seeing evidence of any central regime authority," Vice President Cheney said in a previously scheduled speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in New Orleans. "While pockets of resistance remain, they will be defeated."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that President Bush was cautiously optimistic. “As much as the president is pleased to see the progress of the military campaign . . . he remains very cautious because he knows there is great danger that can still lie ahead,” Fleischer said.

At the Central Command field headquarters in Doha, Qatar, Army Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks told reporters, “The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of where the regime does not have control.”

Fighting continues in several parts of Iraq and “there is a lot of tough work to be done,” Brooks said, but “I think we are at a degree of tipping point where for the population there is a broader recognition that this regime is coming to an end and will not return in a way that it has been in the past.” In contrast to previous days, when the Centcom briefing focused on airstrikes and troop movements, Brooks dwelled at length today on the medical assistance he said U.S. military doctors are providing to sick and wounded Iraqi civilians.

As he spoke, tank-led U.S. convoys pushed into the heart of the Iraqi capital, amid abundant signs that Hussein’s control has evaporated. Journalists in the city reported that government officials have disappeared and even the Information Ministry minders” who had supervised all foreign reporters were nowhere to be seen. Information Minister Mohammed Saeed Sahhaf, who as recently as yesterday was predicting victory, was not heard from today.

As state organizations collapsed, citizens of Baghdad rushed into the streets and into abandoned buildings to do some liberating of their own. Television cameras captured images of people carrying off air conditioners, tires, furniture, refrigerators and even a vase of flowers. Among the buildings plundered were Iraq’s Olympic headquarters and traffic police headquarters, the Associated Press reported.

U.S. military forces are not trained or equipped to become a police force for Iraqi cities, and the need to install some form of civil authority appears to be urgent. The city lacks electricity, water and a functioning police force. Brooks, however, sought to minimize the threat of mass civil disorder.

“I think in this case we’re seeing a lot of jubilation, and people who have long been oppressed for years and years having choices,” he said. “We believe that this will settle down in due time.”

“Total control has been replaced by sheer anarchy,” said James Bays, a British journalist in Baghdad. He was reporting from the Palestine Hotel, the media center in Baghdad, where yesterday two journalists died when a U.S. Army tank shelled the upper floors. Today, Bays said, the hotel’s occupants would welcome the approaching tanks in the hope that the would provide security, which no one else seemed capable of doing. The tanks were rolling unopposed along the capital’s main boulevards.

There was no sign of Hussein himself or any members of his family. It is still not known if they survived the U.S. air strike that hit a building in Baghdad where Hussein and his sons were believed to be attending a meeting earlier this week. If they did survive and managed to flee the city, their destination would probably be Tikrit, at least initially, but U.S. troops have blocked most roads leading out of Baghdad. U.S. warplanes have struck government and Baath party installations repeatedly in the Tikrit area, but Brooks said U.S. commanders have not yet decided to send ground troops into Hussein’s clan stronghold.

Brooks described an accelerating process by which U.S. forces in Baghdad and central Iraq, and British forces in the south and southeast, are consolidating their control and learning more about the alleged human rights abuses and military secrets of the Hussein government. “As regime security forces are eliminated from populated areas, more information is provided by the liberated Iraqis,” he said, citing as an example a truckload of missiles to which U.S. Marines had been alerted by Iraqi civilians.

In Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, celebrating throngs poured into the streets of Sulaimaniyah to hail the apparent downfall of Hussein, their longtime oppressor. Restraining Kurdish military units from marching into Arab-controlled regions near the oil fields around Mosul and Kirkuk could present a major diplomatic challenge for the United States and Britain because of Turkey’s concerns about aspirations for independence among its own Kurdish minority.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company