He heaved forward, hung in midair, and then fell face first to the ground. At sunset over Baghdad on April 9 the sun went down on the 24-year-old regime of Saddam Hussein as a bronze likeness of the Iraqi ruler toppled into Firdos Square. Three weeks to the day from the opening U.S. salvo on Baghdad, capital residents got the message: Saddam Hussein was finished.
They poured spontaneously into the streets of central Baghdad, men who on another day would be closing fruit stands and electronics shops in time to sip strong tea from small glass tumblers and swap stories before heading home for lamb kebabs. Instead they gathered in agitated clumps beneath the blue-tiled dome of Shahid Mosque. Only weeks before, families dutifully had their pictures taken in front of the new "birthday statue" of Saddam. Now the men threw first their shoes and then rocks at the 1-year-old monument as realization slowly spread that power at last had fled the 65-year-old dictator it depicted.
U.S. Marines sat idly atop their tanks. A few worked bubblegum, like a bullish pitcher working the 8th inning of a perfect game.
Suddenly several men scaled the marble plinth and flung ropes around the neck of the bronze Saddam. A ladder appeared and more men scrambled to the statue. A burly man in a muscle shirt stepped out of the crowd with a maul and sidled to the marble base. Other men quickly joined him, vying for a moment to chink the base out from under Saddam. It was April 9, 2003, but it looked like Nov. 9, 1989, at the Berlin Wall all over again. Finally the Marines appeared with an armored vehicle. With two great jerks they winched over the statue. The crowd cheered. The men jumped atop the fallen Saddam waving traditional Iraqi flags.
U.S. commanders could not have hoped for a more powerful sign of victory. For weeks they talked vaguely about "tipping points" in the war. Now the first was crossed not in the darkroom sessions at Centcom but in Firdos Square where the vainglorious Saddam was laid to rest in dust.
"I am happy that Iraqi authority in Baghdad has collapsed," said Laurie Mylroie, who began charting Saddam Hussein's threat to the United States shortly after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Ms. Mylroie told WORLD on April 9 that shortly before the statue fell, she began receiving thank-you e-mails from Iraqis "who have, until now, kept their distance from me." Ms. Mylroie has written three books documenting Saddam's links to terrorism. Until today, she said, many Iraqis were either afraid or didn't believe the regime would ever fall.
"Today is as important for the progress of the war as it is for the perception abroad," she said. "Jubilant Iraqis in the streets will make it difficult for Europeans, Arabs, and others to say that the United States was wrong."
The scenes of liberation unfolded on both Iraqi television and major stations throughout the Arab world. As they did, street celebrations featuring American flags and cries of "Thank you, Mr. Boosh," broke out in the northern city of Irbil and other parts of Iraq.
While spontaneity was with the crowds, it was all a work of strategy from the perspective of coalition forces. Under Gen. Tommy Franks they have kept to a war plan he repeatedly contended was "fast and flexible." Persistently derided by opponents and pundits back home, the Franks strategy suddenly looked only historic.
The four-star general actually reversed his original war plan, sending in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and Marine units ahead of a "shock-and-awe" air campaign once planned to open the war. Yet air and ground forces worked in tandem from the first airstrike on Baghdad on March 19 (Eastern Standard Time) and the march of troops that began the next day. "The present race to Baghdad is unprecedented in its speed and daring and in the lightness of its casualties," said Victor Davis Hanson in an analysis quoted by Vice President Dick Cheney, who spoke to newspaper editors just as the Saddam statue in Baghdad started to tumble.
The noose tightened slowly around the capital city after U.S. forces took control of Baghdad's main airport and supply lines caught up with ground troops. In the north, the 173rd Airborne fought to establish another front with the help of friendly Kurdish forces, marching on key oil areas and the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
The pace of battle peaked in the 48 hours leading up to the fall of Baghdad. B-1 bombers dropped four bunker-buster bombs on a building in a residential neighborhood of Baghdad, acting on reliable reports that Saddam Hussein and his two sons, with other key leaders, were meeting inside. U.S. forces took dramatic control of Saddam's New Presidential Palace. Iraqi forces struck back, exchanging fire with Marines in southern Baghdad and with the 3rd Infantry along Tigris River crossings. A spate of friendly fire episodes-one on Kurdish and U.S. forces in northern Iraq, another that killed two journalists at Baghdad's Palestine Hotel-suggested coalition forces might face significant danger. Still, with just 130 coalition casualties, there was never a question that momentum for victory was with American and British forces.
Fulfillment of the main military mission now leads to other goals, according to Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. "We may yet see some of the other things we have been hoping for, evidence of involvement in terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," he said. Looting and unrest, he said, will be short-term problems. "Iraqi people don't want bedlam. What they want is a chance for a different kind of life."
But Mr. Gaffney and other conservative analysts warn that the war is not over. "Getting an understanding of what we are confronting from such enemies is not unlike the sort of epochal awakening that took place in the late 1940s as the character and threat brought by international communism became clear."
The swift toppling of Saddam and the liberation of Iraqis may ignite other Arab regimes and test terrorist networks. "For the house of Saud, this has to be shock and awe. In many ways it is their worst nightmare," Mr. Gaffney said. "But I expect [Saudi Arabia] to make an opportunity out of this by pouring money into the Sunni community of Iraq in an effort to make it a bastion of Wahabi extremism. We cannot miss the danger that a free and cohesive and secular Iraq poses to them."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers said he hoped the Muslim world will see a dream where nightmares once ruled: "It was the United States and our coalition partners who wanted to put our blood and treasure on the line for a couple of large Muslim populations: one in Afghanistan, and now in Iraq."
Call me a wimp. I went to Iraq a year ago in the spring, when the pastures turned green and wildflowers bloomed under the tense air of an impermanent peace. Ala Talabani was my translator and guide for part of the journey, a businesslike bullet of a woman who made a hobby of collecting American slang and wielded a handshake to match any man's. Her grandfather holds a prominent place in northern Iraq (he heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), but a more prominent place in her heart for taking in her family after her father and a brother were killed by the regime.
I spent my last day with Ms. Talabani exploring her homeland and discussing religion.
She tried to explain the distinction between being "washed," according to Shiite tradition, and being "clean," according to the Sunnis. I was a poor student but countered by explaining what Christians believe, that Jesus is uniquely God and man, alone capable of both washing and making clean.
"All religion is about making people clean," Ms. Talabani said, "and what I take for myself is that there is a creator God. We must always thank him and treat other people well."
We drove through high mountain passes to reach Lake Dokan. Ms. Talabani persuaded Kurdish peshmerga soldiers guarding its dam to permit us a look. Melting snow from the northern mountains collects there every spring, and the dam supplies electricity as well as water for much of northern Iraq. Built in 1959, the dam has long been fought over. A year ago its protection depended on heavy Kurdish guard and a U.S. no-fly zone. Saddam, she predicted, would try to destroy the dam early on in a U.S.-Iraq conflict. I challenged her. What would Saddam gain by destroying a vital public utility? "You have to understand. Saddam destroys anything he cannot control."
Ms. Talabani's own village, close to the main road near Chamchomal outside Kirkuk, was upended by Iraqi tanks after the Kurdish uprising in 1991. Even though the village is no more and its families are scattered, Saddam sent soldiers back in 2001. According to Ms. Talabani, they were ordered to destroy all the cemeteries and wipe out gravestones. "This has a serious effect on the future," she explained, "because without those markers we can never find our land or search out our homes again." She paused, uncharacteristically pensive. "Saddam is not content to destroy our present and future. He also took away our past."
Last week coalition forces working with the Kurdish peshmergas took some of the future back. They took control of the area around Chamchomal, even as retreating Iraqi soldiers cut off water supplies and laid explosives inside its water tanks. But Lake Dokan was safe. In fact, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi set up a staging ground there for the Free Iraqi Force, an army of wily and well-trained Iraqi fighters opposed to Saddam. They include Kurds along with southern Shiites, central Sunnis, and Republican Guard defectors-a united force of one-time enemies. On April 6 the corps flew from the fields by Lake Dokan to Nasiriyah under orders from Gen. Tommy Franks. They are tasked to assist in securing another part of Iraq, the south-a mission that is emblematic of both the hard work and hope of the weeks ahead.