For the first time in many days, there was no dawn chorus of aerial bombing or thudding artillery in Baghdad. I awoke today to a hot, scratchy breeze rustling through date palms and the muted chirping of birds.
Very occasionally, distant warplanes or a muffled boom reverberated in the distance. The lack of nearby sounds of combat reassured many journalists here at the Palestine Hotel. But to me it also marked what, for us, had to be the most dangerous phase of the war.
Yesterday, a senior Iraqi Press Center official told me glumly that "the American soldiers will be coming here. They'll be coming to talk with you journalists." I asked if he would stay, and he shrugged ambiguously. Later in the day, he made the rounds to many foreign television crews, asking them to pay their outstanding debts to the press center. One TV reporter, whose company coughed up $14,000, estimated the apparatchik must have personally collected about $200,000. Did he give any receipts? "Are you joking?" the reporter said.
By this morning, the bureaucrat and virtually every other significant government official had disappeared from the hotel. That left us, at least 300 foreign journalists, suddenly cut loose from the system--and the rules--of a regime that had now collapsed. Most of the 100 or so hard-eyed men of the Iraqi secret police who used to hang out in the lobby, chain-smoking and murmuring in low voices, had disappeared. On the nearly deserted dust-blown streets, not a single man in uniform was spotted. The sandbagged gun emplacements at every street corner were empty.
How long would this eerie period of limbo last? A sniper was firing at passersby from a nearby apartment block. There are reports of looting and uprisings in the sprawling Shiite ghetto of Saddam City. Not only have the Mukhabarat--secret police--and housekeeping staff run away, so have most hotel guards. "The hotel manager is very worried about looting," says one Iraqi acquaintance, "There's nobody left to protect us. I have a pistol, but one firearm isn't enough."
Arriving at the Al-Kindi hospital, I saw a lone doctor virtually quaking with terror and preparing to flee. "There are uprisings across the city, and much looting," he said. "This is a symbol of the government so people will come here. I'm taking my instruments and going to my aunt's house." He rushed out.
The hospital's emergency room was a grim and desolate scene, with just one assistant doctor trying to tend to half a dozen wounded patients--victims caught in the cross-fire between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi forces, mostly party militia and members of the notorious Fedayeen Saddam. "The situation is very bad," said Dr. Zahid Khalid, "More than 80 patients came today. But all the doctors and staff are leaving. They say the American soldiers are just 15 minutes' drive away." Bloodied bits of clothing and bandages littered the floor. A young Iraqi boy, wounded in the ankle, writhed and moaned on a gurney.
Arriving back at the Palestine hotel, a colleague and I decided to head to Saddam City to report on the looting. But first we stopped in my room to make a few phone calls. I stashed some of my cash and other valuables in a hiding place, worried that we'd encounter thieves or thugs along the way. (Indeed, earlier that day some Portuguese journalists were accosted by armed Iraqi men, robbed of $30,000, beaten and held for three hours; they were lucky to escape with their lives.) As we headed out of the hotel lobby an Iraqi driver ran up and blurted in disbelief, "The Americans have come!"
Outside the hotel, a column of U.S. tanks and Humvees of the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines were pulling into the nearby roundabout. Iraqis walked up to the U.S. soldiers, tentatively at first and then more and more enthusiastically, smiling and flashing the V sign. "There was very little resistance," said Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy as a gaggle of foreign journalists scrambled to interview him, "Iraqis were shouting, 'Down with Saddam'."
At that moment, one of the hotel managers pulled me over in the scrum and asked me to introduce him to the colonel. I made the introduction; the Iraqi manager shook hands with the American officer and, in perfect English, politely invited the Marines inside the Palestine Hotel "to protect the journalists and to protect us." McCoy instructed soldiers to secure the Palestine and the nearby Sheraton hotel across the street. A short time later Marines were in the hotel lobby, being served Turkish coffee and cold 7-Up by beaming hotel staff. Just above the hotel driveway, on the second-story roof level, several Iraqis banged holes in a gigantic portrait of Saddam Hussein. Another man poured gasoline onto the wreckage and torched the picture.
Back in the square, a boisterous crowd of Iraqi youth came down the street, singing and shouting "U-S-A, U-S-A", twirling their shirts in the air. They marched right up to the massive dark statue of Saddam, right arm outstretched, that dominates a park in the middle of the roundabout, just in front of the picturesque Fourteenth of Ramadan Mosque.
Over the course of the next couple hours, exuberant Iraqis tried to pull down the statue with a coarse rope tied, hangman's style, around its neck. The bronze statue was too sturdy to be toppled easily. Finally the Marines brought in an armored vehicle with a winch to do the job. Initially one Marine tried to put an American flag over the head of the Saddam statue. A number of Iraqis in the crowd weren't pleased. "That's a sign of occupation," one of them complained. Then some locals produced instead an Iraqi flag, the sight of which triggered a loud roar of approval. "That's more like it," said the Iraqi.
After securing a towline around the statue, the Marines nosed their vehicle forward with a steady, deliberate tug. Ever so slowly, Saddam tilted, and then bent double with a groan. Another tug, and the statue snapped and fell, leaving a couple of disjointed metal supports where the legs had stood. The Iraqi crowd went wild, singing and dancing and chanting anti-Saddam slogans.
Colonel McCoy walked by, smiling at the festivities, a fitting denouement to his unit's long hard slog up from southern Iraq. I asked him if the welcome had been this intense anywhere else in the country. "No, this is the ultimate," he said, "The welcome got more and more intense the closer we got to the center of Baghdad, as people came to feel more and more that this was real." He said he'd instructed a force to stay overnight and secure the neighborhood. The Palestine Hotel had been liberated. Iraqis were indeed dancing in the streets. Whatever else happens, it's the start of a new chapter in this country's long history.