It has become the iconic image of liberation from dictatorship, from Moscow to Manila to Bucharest and now to Baghdad: the statue of the omniscient, all-powerful leader being torn off its pedestal by jubilant crowds.

Totalitarian regimes rely on fear and artifice to function. As long as the dictator is in control, the symbols of his rule exude strength and permanence. His image is inescapable: It gazes down from everywhere. But at the moment of freedom, the symbols come crashing down, and the regime -- like the statue -- is revealed to be hollow and easy to topple.

"This regime is very brittle," said an elated Kanan Makiya, an exiled Iraqi architect whose book, "Republic of Fear," is the classic account of how Saddam Hussein kept himself in power for a quarter-century. "It looks hard on the surface when you bang on it. But when you hit it in the right spot, it shatters like a sheet of glass."

Yesterday, after dozens of failed attempts to overthrow the Hussein dictatorship stretching back for almost as long as he has been in power, U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians finally found "the right spot." But they also experienced the violence and chaos that always accompanies such moments of liberation, even the most joyous.

All revolutions are a mixture of joy and foreboding, but the sudden regime change in Iraq is messier and more ambiguous than most. Unlike the People's Power revolution in the Philippines, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, Hussein's downfall came as the result of a foreign invasion, not a popular uprising. And it has been accompanied by a degree of anarchy, loss of life, and resentment against the world's sole remaining superpower that could linger for years.

Live television pictures of Hussein's statue coming down in the center of Baghdad flashed around the world in a matter of seconds, creating an instantaneous "electronic village" that encompassed the White House and the Kremlin, Muslims and Jews, Asia and Latin America. The very different reactions of television viewers depended on their geographic vantage point, political standing and cultural background.

"They got it down," was the unpoetic reaction of President Bush, watching the pictures in the anteroom of the Oval Office, at least as reported by his spokesman, Ari Fleischer. Like his father in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the president seemed to think that this was a time for caution rather than exulting.

His defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was not so inhibited. He described the scenes of Iraqis celebrating in the streets as reminiscent of the "fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain . . . Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed, brutal dictators."

"Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the revolutions in Eastern Europe," countered Khaled Maena, editor of Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. "When Saddam's statue came down, it came down with U.S. help, and there only seemed to be a couple of hundred people in the street." As he watched the television pictures from Baghdad on Arab and Western networks, Maena said, he saw "anarchy, looting, and chaos, one devil being replaced by another devil."

"There are two entirely different narratives," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence University. "The American audience is seeing the destruction of the symbols of the Iraqi regime. The Arab audience is seeing American soldiers standing by with grins on their faces as Iraq descends into anarchy, and people loot hospitals, police stations and universities."

Former Czech dissident Martin Palous said he was reminded of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Prague as he watched the television images from Baghdad. "It's the most shocking experience you can think of," said Palous, now Czech ambassador to Washington. "It can be statues coming down, or a wall, or a big crowd of people around you singing a song that has being banned for 20 years, but you suddenly realize that tomorrow is not going to be the same as yesterday."

Palous is quick to add that the Czech regime was much less brutal than Hussein's. The Velvet Revolution was almost entirely peaceful. There were no U.S. tanks in the streets. Czechs, in contrast to Arabs, were generally pro-American. The difficulties that Czechoslovakia went through after 1989 -- the country split apart several years later -- pale in comparison to the challenges facing the future leaders of Iraq.

Arab and Western commentators were agreed on one point: Pulling down statues is a lot easier than constructing a stable, post-totalitarian society. "Joy can very quickly give way to anger," said Makiya, the exiled Iraqi writer. "This is an extremely important moment that the U.S. can handle well or badly."

"Moments of liberation are never as neat as the history books tell us," agreed retired Col. Robert Killibrew, a former Special Forces officer in Vietnam. "It is possible to win all the battles but lose the war, as we did in Vietnam. The stakes are very high."

The history of post-totalitarian regimes suggests that one side never really wins in a war or revolution, and the other side never really loses. While the most notorious leaders of the old order may be killed or overthrown, many of their followers remain. People who prospered under the old regime often prosper under the new one, after a quick switch of political allegiance.

Recovering from totalitarianism is recovering from a nightmare, Palous said. "The nightmare is gone, and you find yourself in the light of day, but the memories keep coming back. You see people around you that you have seen before, and they are not all victims. Some of them are torturers."

Iraqi history is not entirely encouraging, noted David Fromkin, author of "A Peace to End All Peace," an authoritative account of the making of the modern Middle East. When the British put down a rebellion in Iraq in 1922, they imposed their own Hashemite leader, King Faisal, as ruler. But Faisal refused to be a British puppet, and demanded greater autonomy.

Thirty-six years later, Faisal's son was overthrown in a bloody revolution. His prime minister tried to escape Baghdad disguised as a woman, but was caught, castrated and chopped into pieces. His body parts were paraded through the street. "Pulling down statues seems civilized by comparison," said Fromkin.

A scene from Abu Dhabi television shows Marines draping a U.S. flag over an enormous statue of Saddam Hussein.