Saddam Hussein's rule over the capital has ended, U.S. commanders declared Wednesday, and jubilant crowds swarmed into the streets here, dancing, looting and defacing images of the Iraqi leader. A Marine tank toppled a giant statue of Saddam in a sweeping, symbolic gesture.
In the most visible sign of Saddam's evaporating power, the 40-foot statue of the Iraqi president was brought down in the middle of Firdos Square. Cheering Iraqis, some waving the national flag, scaled the statue and danced upon the downed icon, now lying face down. As it fell, some threw shoes and slippers at the statue - a gross insult in the Arab world.
The scene was telecast worldwide by CNN and others.
"I'm 49, but I never lived a single day," said Yusuf Abed Kazim, a Baghdad imam who pounded the statue's pedestal with a sledgehammer. "Only now will I start living. That Saddam Hussein is a murderer and a criminal."
Others marked the regime's dissolution more passively, picking flowers from a nearby garden and handing them to Marines. While the capital was celebrating, the fate of Saddam and his sons remained unknown, two days after they were targeted by four 2,000-pound U.S. bombs in Baghdad.
"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 Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command in Qatar.
Brooks said that Saddam loyalists were holding out in the north, notably at Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, and still posed a threat, including the possible use of weapons of mass destruction.
Even as they encountered sniper fire and fierce resistance from roving bands of holdout fighters, Marine and Army units swept through Baghdad, seizing or destroying buildings that once housed some of Saddam's most feared security forces. Gunshots and explosions rocked the University of Baghdad, where smoke rose over the campus after a firefight, CNN reported.
Yet Marine tanks rolled into the heart of the city, on the east bank of the Tigris, greeted by people clapping and waving white flags. Civilians gestured to the Americans with V-for-victory signs. "We were nearly mobbed by people trying to shake our hands," said Maj. Andy Milburn of the 7th Marines. One Army contingent had to use razor-wire to hold back surging crowds of well-wishers.
At police stations, government ministries, the headquarters of the Iraq Olympic Committee, looters unhindered by any police presence made off with computers, furniture, telephones, even military jeeps. One young man used roller skates to wheel away a refrigerator.
"Thank you, thank you, Mr. Bush," some of the looters shouted. An elderly man beat a portrait of Saddam with his shoe, while a younger man spat on the portrait.
Not everyone rejoiced.
"This is the destruction of Islam," said Qassim al-Shamari, 50, a laborer wearing an Arab robe. "After all, Iraq is our country. And what about all the women and children who died in the bombing?"
The U.S. Central Command reacted cautiously to the euphoria and chaos in Baghdad, pointing to locations in northern Iraq where significant pockets of pro-Saddam fighters remained.
"We'll continue to go where those pockets are and reduce them," said command spokesman Jim Wilkinson. "It'll just take time to find those pockets and destroy them and hopefully they'll surrender."
U.S. commanders focused attention on Tikrit, still a stronghold of loyalist troops, and the northern city of Mosul. Lt. Mark Kitchens, a Central Command spokesman, said special operations forces and airstrikes were "actively engaging" Iraqi forces in both cities.
U.S. special forces and Kurdish fighters seized a strategic hilltop near Mosul; senior Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari called it the most important gain in the region thus far.
Back in Baghdad, U.S. forces steadily expanded their reach, securing a military airport, capturing a prison and setting fire to a Republican Guard barracks. Milburn said the house of Saddam's son Odai was on fire, apparently hit by a bomb.
The Iraqi government's efforts to sustain its public relations campaign collapsed. State television went off the air Tuesday. On Wednesday, foreign journalists said their "minders" - government agents who monitor their reporting - did not turn up for work. There was no sign of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, whose daily briefings had constituted the main public face of the regime during the war.
While intent on consolidating their hold on Baghdad, U.S. commanders also were turning their attention to Tikrit, about 90 miles to the north. Defended by well-trained troops, and home to many of Saddam's most devoted followers, the city of 260,000 is considered one of the few remaining strongholds of the Iraqi regime.
The Central Command said coalition airstrikes were targeting the Republican Guard's Adnan division in Tikrit, "shaping the battlefield" before U.S. ground forces move in. Brooks said Iraqi reinforcements were reaching Tikrit, apparently after retreating from positions to the north and south.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Iraqi Kurdish groups opposing Saddam, claimed Tuesday that Saddam already was hiding in Tikrit. U.S. officials said they didn't know if he had escaped Monday's bombing of a site in Baghdad's al-Mansour neighborhood where he and at least one of his sons reportedly were meeting.
The toll of journalists killed in the war reached 10, with three killed in U.S. military strikes in Baghdad on Tuesday.
Two cameramen, one from Ukraine and one from Spain, were killed when a U.S. tank fired into the Palestine Hotel, where hundreds of journalists are based. U.S. officers initially said hostile fire had been coming from the building; journalists said they witnessed none.
Also, a Jordanian reporter was killed in a U.S. airstrike on the Baghdad office of the Arab television network al-Jazeera, which contended the attack was deliberate.
On Wednesday, the U.S. branch of Amnesty International joined in the criticism.
"Unless the U.S. can demonstrate that the Palestine Hotel had been used for military purposes, it was a civilian object protected under international humanitarian law that should not have been attacked," Amnesty said.
In the southern city of Basra, which was taken over by British forces this week, looters have been plundering government buildings, universities, even hospitals. A Red Cross representative said the looting could delay relief efforts in the city of 1.3 million.
Editor's Note: This story was written by David Crary in New York, based on reporting from Ellen Knickmeyer, Ravi Nessman, Chris Tomlinson, Alex Zavis and Hamza Hendawi in Baghdad and other AP reporters in Iraq and elsewhere.