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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Youths stripped tires off trucks at a military base, a pickup truck spun away with an air conditioner in the back. In a free-for-all Wednesday, Iraqis in Baghdad pillaged facilities of the government that ruled them for decades, making away with refrigerators, mattresses, telephones, even doors.
With the regime's feared security forces nowhere to be seen, Iraqis also dared cheer U.S. troops and attack the symbols of Saddam Hussein' rule, acts that would have been unthinkable only days or weeks before.
In a main square of the capital, a crowd of Iraqis and U.S. Marines pulled down a 40-foot statue of Saddam, breaking it in half on the way down. Hundreds of people swarmed over the hollow metal torso, tearing it to pieces and dragging the head down the street. Before bringing it down, the Marines briefly covered the statue's face with an American flag, then replaced it with the red-black-and-white Iraqi flag.
"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day. Only now will I start living," said Yussuf Abed Kazim, a mosque preacher, as he bashed the statue's pedestal with a sledgehammer, knocking off tile and concrete. "That Saddam Hussein is a murderer and a criminal."
In images showed live across the Arab world, Iraqis danced in the streets, waving rifles, palm fronds and flags, and defaced posters of the longtime Iraqi president.
American troops moving through the Iraqi capital drew instant crowds. One unit was swarmed by cheering Iraqis, with women lifting their babies for the soldiers to kiss. Young men shouted, "Bush No. 1, Bush No. 1."
But some were indignant.
"This is the destruction of Islam. After all, Iraq is our country. And what about all the women and children who died in the bombing?" said 50-year-old Qassim al-Shamari, a laborer wearing a beige Arab robe.
"We will never allow them to stay. Whatever he (Saddam) has done, he is a Muslim, and we are a Muslim nation," said 33-year-old Ali Al-Obeidi, a store owner.
The main targets of looting Wednesday were government facilities: ministry buildings, the state-owned Oil Marketing Co., traffic police headquarters -- even Iraq's Olympic headquarters, said to be the site of a torture center run by Saddam's eldest son, Odai.
Some buildings were on fire, including Odai's home. People hauled computers, appliances, tires, bookshelves, tables, even jeeps from government buildings. One man tottered down the street carrying an elaborate vase half his height.
On Palestine Street, where the ruling Baath party as recently as a few weeks back held rallies and shows of force, gangs of youths and even middle-aged men looted Trade Ministry warehouses, coming out with air conditioners, ceiling fans, refrigerators and TV sets. Even military facilities were not immune: tires were taken from the vehicle pool at one post in the city and windows were smashed.
By the afternoon, the looting spread to more parts of the city. On al-Saadoun Street in the heart of the capital, men, women and children broke into a furniture store and made away with mattresses.
Two young men stole gold-rimmed copies of the Quran from a bookshop.
One Iraqi, expressing his disgust at the looting, said: "We are now afraid of other Iraqis, not the Americans."
There were no immediate reports of any attempts to restore order by the Iraqi government -- or by U.S. troops moving from street to street.
With U.S. troops still hunting for Saddam loyalists, there was a burst of fire every few minutes as Marines cleared buildings. Occasionally, there was a small explosions blow up doors to buildings.
Brig. Gen. Vince Brooks of U.S. Central Command said the chaos would settle down on its own, and that U.S. troops would soon begin working with residents to maintain order.
"We're seeing a lot of jubilation and people who have long been oppressed for years and years, having choices," he told reporters in Qatar. "I think that we'll see some of this in other areas that have been liberated. This is a lot of pent-up energy."
State-run Baghdad radio was still on the air, broadcasting patriotic songs and excerpts from Saddam's speeches. But in some neighborhoods of the capital -- particularly Saddam City, a poor, predominantly Shiite Muslim area long considered an opposition hotbed -- residents felt assured the Iraqi president's reign was over.
On one street, a white-haired man held up a poster of Saddam and beat it with his shoe. A younger man spat on the portrait, and several others launched kicks at the face of the Iraqi president.
"Come see, this is freedom. This is the criminal, this is the infidel," he said. "This is the destiny of every traitor. He killed millions of us."
The scenes of jubilation came after one of the quietest nights in Baghdad since the war began. The relatively light clashes raised hopes that the worst of the fighting was over and that Baghdad had fallen to the Americans.
"The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of where the regime does not have control," said Brooks. He said the situation has reached a "tipping point" where the population now realizes "this regime is coming to an end and will not return to the way it was in the past."
Overnight, only a few blasts shattered the quiet. Explosions, tank shelling and gunfire rang out after daybreak, but the fighting was described as only sporadic resistance to U.S. forces trying to expand areas of the capital under their control.
The Army was pushing across the city from the west and the Marines from the east, and they hoped to link up Wednesday. U.S. forces were securing routes into the capital, repelling ambushes and trying to hunt down roving bands of fighters made up of three or four people.
The majority of regular Iraqi army soldiers and Republican Guard troops are believed to have deserted and gone home. Uniforms, boots and weapons litter the streets and fill fighting positions throughout the city.
Neither Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf nor any ministry "minders" came to the Palestine Hotel, where hundreds of journalists are staying and where U.S. troops showed up later in the day. Sahhaf gave daily briefings where he declared that Iraqi forces were slaughtering the invaders and on the verge of victory.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)