A scene erupted on a street in Baghdad today that many residents had not seen in their lifetimes. People debated.
"Believe me, I have waited for this moment for 35 years," said Majid Mohammed, an electrical engineer. "You must bring these words to the American people. Thank you, thank you very, very much."
Zuheir Girgis hesitated, then said he would wait and see. "Nobody hates freedom, and if they bring freedom, nobody will hate them," he insisted.
Dhikran Albert shook his head. "If they've come as invaders," he warned, "nobody will welcome them."
Mohammed delighted in the moment. No one was looking over their shoulders, no one was dreading a question. The Baath Party cadres in the neighborhood were in their homes, dressed in civilian clothes. The Iraqi soldiers had fled, some leaving weapons behind.
"We are now free, so everybody has an opinion," he said.
But even in freedom, the shadow of President Saddam Hussein fell over the crowd. One person asked an American reporter how they could know he was not a spy. Others turned away questions about politics, about brushes with security forces, about the fate of Hussein.
"I think he has nine lives," Mohammed said, his tone softer. "Maybe he will come back and have his revenge."
At that moment, someone down the street called out that the Americans had arrived. The curious and the jubilant ran down the road. As they gathered, a line of tanks and other armor paraded down Saadoun Street, toward a statue of Hussein in Firdaus Square. An Iraqi exile working with the Americans shouted into a microphone, "We're bringing freedom for everyone, we're making a free Iraq."
Crowds that lined the streets erupted in cheers. Women ululated, a cry of joy in the Arab world. One man asked if a soldier could be found to marry his daughter. Others threw candy, cigarettes and flowers at the soldiers atop vehicles flying the U.S. flag. When they stopped, many ran to the soldiers to shout hello, to shake their hands and, for a few, to kiss them on the cheek.
"Did the war end?" asked Kamel Hamid, as he stood on the road. "Is it over?"
"It is a liberation," shouted Abbas Ali, holding his daughter's hand.
Others, more reserved, held back from the curb. Some uttered words of caution or rebuke: that the Americans wanted Iraq's oil, that war was not the answer, that U.S. troops were here to stay.
"This is my country and this is an occupation," said Stefan Abu George, 59, standing along the street. "I can't imagine what the result of this is going to be." A friend, Wathiq Abzara, answered: "Like Palestine."
Down the road, Mazin Hussein, a doctor at Ibn Haitham Hospital, and a friend, Saad Kaabi, gingerly approached a U.S. tank with the words "Love Machine" scrawled on its side. Over the roar of its engines, they asked the soldiers to take down the U.S. flag on their tank. They could not be heard and, after a few minutes, they gave up.
"This is not the liberation they told us about. It's not the right time to raise flags," Hussein said.
Americans threw packaged meals down to the crowd, almost setting off a riot. A friend of Hussein brought one to him.
"I will not eat from them," he said, with a look of disgust, before turning away.
A Changed City
At daybreak, the morning newspapers looked as they have every day since Hussein became president in 1979. There were the portraits of Iraq's leader grinning in khakis and beret, lecturing in suit and tie, and firing a rifle. Headlines in a floral Arabic exhorted the nation to victory. "The faithful sons of Iraq continue their heroic resistance against invasion," one pronounced.
But overnight, the world had changed for Baghdad's 5 million residents. The city had emptied of the authorities who had lorded over daily life. Gone were the swarms of Baath Party militiamen, who had fanned out across the city at the beginning of the war. Uniforms and boots were discarded in the streets, and weapons and military trucks were abandoned, some with ammunition spilling out of their trunks. Ministries were deserted, blue-uniformed traffic cops disappeared, and the streets crackled with anticipation of the unknown.
For a few hours, order was replaced by anarchy.
Gangs of young men, some slinging Kalashnikovs, ambled down the streets. Some let off a few rounds to make a point. Flying white flags, cars ignored traffic lights; many headed down the wrong side of the road. Nearly all of them barreled through Baghdad with a reckless desperation, fearful of being caught in the crossfire that killed and wounded so many in the five-day offensive.
"Go back! Go back!" one driver shouted. He pointed behind him to what he said were U.S. tanks coming across a bridge.
At Kindi Hospital, Ali Mizhar, 38, arrived with five children wounded when a U.S. blast struck their home in the neighborhood of Zayuna. "Can you just ask them to stop bombing?" he shouted. "The resistance is over, it's totally over."
For many, the first sign that the government had collapsed was the looting that spread across parts of the city by early morning.
From government offices, state-owned companies and U.N. buildings came computers, appliances, bookshelves, overhead fans, tables and chairs. From military bases came new Toyota pickups, without license plates, that were careering through Baghdad by afternoon. An elderly woman made her way down Saadoun Street, her back sagging from a mattress she was carrying. Others rode on top of white freezers they wheeled down the road. Throughout the day, trucks piled high with booty roamed the capital.
"People believe these things belong to them," said Faleh Hassan, 51, as he sat at Abu Ahmed restaurant in the Karrada neighborhood. At lunchtime, he served customers kebab and kufta grilled on a charred stove crafted from an air-conditioning duct. He spoke with an ease that seemed to delight him, saying in public what he believed in private.
"The situation has changed," he said, "so even our speech is different."
Hassan, like so many in Baghdad, had his grudges. In the war with Iran from 1980 to 1988, he was arrested for deserting the army, drawing a death sentence that was later commuted. His brother, Ahmed, was killed by thugs he said came from Hussein's home town of Tikrit. Over tea, he looked back at 30 years during which one of the world's richest countries became a nation of paupers.
"It's a long story, the history of Iraq," he said.
He said he was tired of the fear, tired of the repression, tired of the isolation that he blamed for the loss of his once-fluent English. He was thankful for Hussein's end. But he was suspicious of the Americans.
"We feel peaceful and we feel relieved, but we are still frightened by tomorrow," Hassan said, dragging on a cigarette. "We will see the American and British intentions over the next few months."
A current of such ambivalence raced across Baghdad along with jubilation and surprise. Relief was tied up with trepidation, joy with anxiety. What next, many seemed to ask. Hassan, a little weary, hoped the future would be better than the past.
"I want to feel that I'm a human being, I want to feel that I'm free and that no one can take it away," he said. "I want to work, so that my family has enough to live. I want to live like everyone else in this world who lives in peace."
Bringing Down Hussein
There was little of that reflection in Firdaus Square, the site of what is likely to become the lasting image of the U.S. entry into Baghdad. The park, built in 2001, was one of the city's newest. A statue depicted Hussein in a suit, surrounded by columns of descending height, each bearing the initials "S.H." By early afternoon, hundreds of Iraqis swarmed around it with one task in mind: bringing it down.
They threw a heavy rope tied like a noose around its neck. Many hurled rocks at it. A few minutes later, someone in the crowd showed up with a sledgehammer, and residents took turns pummeling the purple granite at its base.
"Scum, son of scum!" shouted Yusuf Abed Kadhim, as he swung at the pedestal.
"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living," he said.
An hour later, the statue wasn't budging, and several men scurried up the rope to try to push it down from above. They couldn't, and U.S. Marines came to their aid. A tank recovery vehicle plowed through the circle, crushing two flights of stairs and a flower bed in the middle of the park. When it arrived, residents helped put its cable around one leg, then both legs.
As they worked, Shiite Muslims chanted, "There is no god but God, Saddam is the enemy of God."
The Marines brought a U.S. flag, draping it over the statue's face, but that drew few cheers. More acclaim came when someone from the crowd produced an Iraqi flag, a version from before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and draped it over Hussein's likeness. But the statue was still standing. Iraqis finally tied a heavy chain around its neck, and tethered it to the vehicle.
"If Saddam was watching this scene, he would be laughing at us," said Shidrak George, 38, standing nearby.
Finally, after two hours, the statue fell halfway; with another pull, it toppled to the ground. Shouts of joy went up, and the crowd converged, kicking it, pummeling it with a chain, rocks and a sledgehammer, and slapping it with shoes -- a great insult in the Arab world. Its head was carted off down the street, pulled by ropes. Iraqis jumped up and down on the body.
From the crowd went up a chant familiar to everyone in Hussein's Iraq as a pledge of loyalty and love to the man who ruled them. But this chant was different, the object of praise a country, not a man. And for the first time in 30 years, people seemed to mean it.
"With our spirit, with our blood," they shouted, "we sacrifice for you, Iraq."