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Suddenly, in the heart of Baghdad, it was okay to laugh.

For 19-year-old Zana, the moment came yesterday morning, when from behind her headscarf she let slip a derogatory remark about Saddam Hussein.

"His heart," the young woman said, still afraid to give her surname to a reporter. "It was like an air conditioner."

She looked momentarily stunned by what she had just said, until her 16-year-old sister Sara started to giggle. Zana also began to laugh, and soon the sisters were doubled over in gales of hysterical, alleviating, laughter.

And so, it seemed, was the heart of Baghdad, where for much of yesterday statues and posters of Mr. Hussein were toppling, crowds were cheering U.S. soldiers and people were laughing, often at the man they had feared for so long.

The dictator was gone, they knew, and life in Baghdad was different.

Though it may take longer to erase from people's memories, Saddam Hussein's 24-year reign over the Iraqi people came symbolically crashing down before noon, three weeks from the start of the war, with the screech of twisting metal and the roar of an elated crowd, as American troops seized the centre of Baghdad and toppled a signature statue of the tyrant.

Groups of Iraqis loyal to Mr. Hussein continued to fight in other parts of the capital and the country -- as they may for weeks or months to come -- but those living in the centre of Baghdad gradually began to get the sense that the worst of the war was over, and their long nightmare finished.

After enduring concussive air strikes day and night, they awoke this morning from the first night without U.S. bombs dropping on the city in three weeks.

Fighting resumed today, however, as U.S. troops battled Iraqi fighters at a palace to the north of the capital and at a mosque in the city. Marines later were searching the mosque, believing that Mr. Hussein might be hiding inside, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.

At first, the coming together of the U.S. soldiers and the people of Baghdad yesterday was a nervous one. Like two teenagers at a high school dance, unsure of how the other felt, they watched each other from afar -- the Iraqis daring only to peek from the balconies of their homes, the Americans looking back cautiously over the barrels of their raised guns.

But early yesterday morning, as a column of U.S. tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled down National Theatre Street, toward Mr. Hussein's statue on the square, the mood began to lighten.

In those early hours, when Iraqi defences seemed to evaporate in the spring heat, only a few Iraqis dared to appear on the street. Some hurled debris at the statue, which featured Mr. Hussein in a business suit with his right arm raised. Their actions emboldened a few more, and within minutes the square was filled with perhaps 200 Iraqis chanting for the statue to come down.

The first attempt to topple the statue with a sledgehammer failed, as did a subsequent try with ropes.

A U.S. armoured vehicle, fitted with steel cables and a pulley, intervened and soon, the monument fell, sparking a gush of joy in the crowd. Some danced. Some sang. Some threw flowers and kisses at the American soldiers.

Dhaffar al-Mansuria, a 25-year-old university student whose father had been killed in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, rushed to stomp on Mr. Hussein's likeness, nearly falling over several times in his enthusiasm to kick at what he saw as a symbol of evil.

"Saddam killed many, many Iraqis. He raped many girls. He is a very bad man and now he is gone," Mr. Mansuria said, panting to catch his breath.

"Even though my father was killed by Americans, I am not angry with them. I am angry only at Saddam. He did this to us."

Hassid Nouri, a 55-year-old who stood back from the crowd, said he was thinking of a friend who disappeared in 1978, shortly after taking part in a protest against the regime, and has not been heard from since.

"Everybody was waiting for this day to come," Mr. Nouri said. "We want to build a statue for Bush in the middle of Baghdad, for freeing us from Saddam."

There were an angry few, however, watching the scene from the sidelines and warning those around them that they would pay for their displays of dissent.

"You are not allowed to do this. This man is Iraq," a woman in a business suit told a group dancing on the pedestal where the statue once stood.

She was wearing a badge that identified her as a government official.

"This man is not Iraq," a man wearing a tattered jogging suit shot back. The crowd cheered. "Iraq is food and water and electricity and all the things we don't have. This man is just Saddam."

The scenes of jubilation had vanished by this morning, but the anger against Mr. Hussein had not. Without a crowd to encourage him or a media throng to record the display, a lone Iraqi walking in the early hours past the empty pedestal where the dictator's statue once stood stopped to give the base a swift kick before continuing on.

American soldiers caught up in the jubilation the day before seemed surprised at their reception, and at the easy time they had moving into the middle of the city. A day earlier, they had been locked in fierce urban warfare on the outskirts of Baghdad, but by yesterday morning it seemed the resistance had almost completely melted.

"There was nothing today, we just rolled straight in," said Sergeant Grant Zaitz of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, the unit that seized a large swath of central Baghdad yesterday morning, including the square where the statue once stood.

Nodding at the crowd, he smiled. "It's better than down south, better than getting shot at. I guess we should have got here sooner."

Soon after the statue was toppled, however, the crowd began to ask tough questions of the U.S. forces suddenly in control over much of their city. One man approached a marine standing guard on the square and asked him how quickly his electricity -- knocked out earlier this week in the midst of fighting -- would be switched back on. "One day? One week? More? And the water pressure is very poor," the man said.

The marine, who moments before had been signing autographs for the crowd, appeared dumbfounded. "I'm sorry, that's not my job, sir," he eventually responded.

Many Iraqis said they wanted the U.S. forces to stay only as long as it took to restore services and set up an Iraqi-led, government.

"I hope the American soldiers will stay for one year, then go," said Furat abd-Algamy, a 24-year-old engineering student. "If they stay longer, there will be trouble. I know this will happen, and there's nothing we can do about it."

In Saddam City, a poor Shia Muslim neighbourhood that had borne the brunt of several of Mr. Hussein's crackdowns, crowds swarmed out to meet a group of foreign journalists, showering them with kisses and flowery words as if they were the liberators. Moments later, however, a rock crashed through our back window.

"They are killers of my people," seethed Mejdee Abdul Khadr, glaring at the passing troops. "They bomb anywhere, they kill everybody."

The civilian death toll -- one measure by which coalition efforts to oust Mr. Hussein will be judged -- also continued to climb, with one Baghdad hospital reporting it had received 30 dead and 300 injured Tuesday night alone.

For much of the morning, however, the streets were simply empty. One man estimated that three-quarters of the people he knew had fled the city, seeking refuge in small towns and villages around the country. Of the few civilians we saw, some waved at us, while others looked on grim-faced, gripping their Kalashnikov rifles.

Such scattered militia units were the only defenders left in evidence as we weaved through the north and west of the capital. Very few uniformed Iraqi soldiers could be seen, and certainly nothing that could pass as a fighting unit. The only Iraqi tanks or defensive positions that we saw were either destroyed or, more commonly, deserted.

There was looting in many parts of the city, especially government office buildings that all seemed to be stripped of their computers and furniture by midday. At the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters, which Mr. Hussein's son Uday had turned into a torture centre, one man was seen leaving with a refrigerator. The base of the Mukhabarat secret police was being looted by the time U.S. Marines arrived and took it over.

While much of the city was surrounded by U.S. forces, free entry and escape was still possible to the north, toward Mr. Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

While rumours about Mr. Hussein's whereabouts, or his existence, continued to ripple through the city last night, most residents seemed content to know that his days as leader were over.

Shortly after watching Mr. Hussein's statue fall, Fousi al-Hasseini made a phone call to his sister, who now lives in Toronto. His young nephew answered.

"Did you see? Did you see it?" Mr. al-Hasseini asked in English, dabbing at his eyes while his own children wept openly around him. "Today we got freedom."

Baghdad: Chaos and jubilation

U.S. tanks and troops swarmed throughout the sprawling city, meeting little resistance. About 20 tanks and other military vehicles took up positions near Tahir Square, heart of the capital. Looting erupted in many districts and crowds sacked the Canal Hotel, the longtime United Nations headquarters. But dozens of Iraqi and Arab fighters in civilian clothing were still holed up behind buildings or in sandbagged positions on the western side of the Junhuriya Bridge spanning the Tigris River. And mystery still surrounded the fate of deposed tyrant Saddam Hussein, not heard from since a giant bomb on Monday obliterated the Baghdad building where he was believed to have been with his two sons.

The map shows key strategic sites and who was controlling them as of last night.

AID SUPPLIES: Aircraft have begun delivering aid supplies to Baghdad's international airport, according to U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "They're already going in, " he said, dismissing reports of a humanitarian crisis in Iraq.


DEFENCE MINISTRY: Control uncertain

INFORMATION MINISTRY: Contested by snipers

BAATH PARTY HEADQUARTERS: U.S. forces, apparently



STATUE BROUGHT DOWN: Jubilant Iraqis cheered and chanted after U.S. Marines pulled down a landmark statue of Saddam Hussein yesterday. Images of the scene, which took place in Paradise Square, dominated the news.

RASHEED MILITARY AIRPORT: U.S. forces, still clearing buildings



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