Cover Story

BAGHDAD SET FREE

The fall of the capital unleashes jubilation among a long beaten-down population, but the really hard work begins now for Iraq-and for the United States

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

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.

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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.

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