Celebrations as Saddam's rule crumbles

JUBILANT Iraqis danced upon a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein today as the dictator's grip on Baghdad finally crumbled.Astonishing scenes of celebration greeted the liberation of the city as Saddam's tyrannical reign was swept away into history.

JUBILANT Iraqis danced upon a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein today as the dictator's grip on Baghdad finally crumbled.

Astonishing scenes of celebration greeted the liberation of the city as Saddam's tyrannical reign was swept away into history.

There was no sigh of the man himself but the people he oppressed took to the streets to celebrate and vent their anger against symbols of a regime which has ruled Iraq for almost a quarter of a century.

Just 24 hours earlier their demonstrations would have risked ruthless suppression by the regime. But overnight it had melted away in the face of the Allied advance.

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In a sign that the regime was finished, Mohammed al-Douri, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, announced "the game is over".

"My work now is peace. The game is over and I hope the peace will prevail. I hope the Iraqi people will have a happy life,' Mr al-Douri told reporters outside his New York residence.

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The Iraqi ambassador distanced himself from Saddam, saying he had "no relationship' with the regime. He had had no communications with Iraq for a long time because of the war, he said.

Asked what was meant by his remarks that the game was over, Mr al-Douri said: "The war.'

There was no immediate comment from Downing Street on what was the first admission by an Iraqi official that US-led forces had prevailed after a three week campaign.

As US troops headed for the heart of the city, just 21 days after the war began, Iraqi officials vanished or "quietly shredded their identity cards', police deserted the streets and military opposition all but vanished.

At first slowly, but then in waves, the people took over, mingling happily with US Marines, looting from official buildings and attacking any symbol of Saddam they could find.

One man was shown on TV around the globe hitting a poster of the dictator with his shoe - a serious insult in the Arab world.

"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. Oh people, this is freedom.'

After US marines helped topple a huge city centre statue - erected less than a year ago to mark Saddam's birthday - the shoes came off again as cheering crowds swarmed over their president's image.

Earlier, Iraqis had taken a sledgehammer to the plinth of the monument in the central Shahid Square in a scene reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, brought down in 1989 by citizens of another oppressed city.

Prime Minister Tony Blair joined Downing Street staff watching television images of the liberation of Baghdad to "celebrate' along with its people.

But No 10 exercised caution, saying victory was far from complete.

At Prime Minister's Question Time, Mr Blair told MPs: "In relation to whom we would take a surrender from, it's extremely difficult, as we speak, to know what's left of the governing higher ranks of Saddam's regime.'

But Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said later: "It does look as though the days of the Saddam Hussein regime are all but over.

"When you have a tyrant in power, his grip on power depends solely on terror. Remove that terror, there is no consent underpinning it and so the whole thing just falls into dust. And that's almost literally what we are now seeing,' he told Channel 4 News.

President Bush was said to be pleased with the military progress in Iraq, but he cautioned that great danger could still lie ahead, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

US Vice President Dick Cheney was more outspoken, praising the military campaign and taking a sardonic swipe at "retired military officers embedded in TV studios' who had criticised the war plan.

"With every day and every advance by our coalition forces, the wisdom of that plan becomes more apparent.'

The Iraqi regime appeared to have fled two days after Allied bombs struck a restaurant where Saddam was thought to be meeting with other leaders.

Although British intelligence sources were reported as suggesting he escaped the attack, US officials remained optimistic today.

"We may have got him. We just don't know. It's clear that nobody's in charge, that nobody's getting any direction,' said one official. "He's gone way underground, literally or figuratively.'

The first signs that Saddam's 24-year rule might be over came early today when US marines were greeted not with guns but with flowers and applause as they made their way through the east of the city.

People in the Saddam City district, a poor mainly Shiite area, poured on to the streets to welcome them as liberators, not conquerors. Iraq's Shiites have suffered persecution at the hands of Saddam's regime.

Hundreds cheered, danced and threw flowers as US Marines advanced.

The open defiance by people who finally dared to believe that Saddam could no longer harm them spread rapidly around the city.

TV pictures showed looters emerging from official buildings in the centre of Baghdad clutching furniture, fridges - anything they could carry.

Journalists who for weeks had been shadowed by official "minders', monitoring their movements and their words and pictures, were surprised when they simply did not appear this morning.

Instead they were able to move around freely, talking to civilians unhindered, welcoming US troops and watching as the tanks rolled through the city without meeting any significant resistance.

And for once the Iraqi information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf did not make an appearance to insist the regime would triumph.

end US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of Mr al-Douri's comments: "I would say it wasn't a game.

"It was over when President Bush announced that the Saddam Hussein regime had refused to accept their last opportunity to co-operate with UN resolutions, and it was only a matter of time after that.'

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