BAGHDADThe Marines rolled into the center of Baghdad on Wednesday, marking the occasion by pulling down a large statue of Saddam Hussein with an armored assault vehicle, to the cheers of a large crowd in the Iraqi capital. After the statue fell, citizens swooped down upon it, spitting on Saddam's face and beating it with sledgehammers, shoes, and whatever else was handy. "We are all very happy because we want peace," said Ali Imam, who watched the display while holding hands with his son Hussein. "We want to finish war here and go back to work and be able to get food."
Lt. Col. Bryan P. McCoy, the Marine commander who brought his soldiers to this spot after fighting his way from the Kuwaiti desert, looked on and smiled. But asked what he was thinking as the statue fell, he stiffened and looked to the ground: "It's a great day for the Iraqi people, but I'm thinking about my men who died along the way." Lt. Col. McCoy lost one marine to machine-gun fire and two others to a mortar round in the days leading up to his arrival in Baghdad. "I'm thinking there's still work to be done," he added, before attempting to begin setting up security in the capital.
But the Iraqis in his midst would not let him go, asking to have pictures taken with him and having him sign Iraqi bills with Saddam's picture on them. Nearby, other Iraqi men shook hands with his marines, some giving them flowers, which they wore in notches on their flack jackets or on their helmets.
But while most Iraqis expressed glee at the Marine arrival, others were more cautious. "We are not happy because Americans have come here, and we are not sad because the evil regime is dead," said Munawar al Zubadi. "We do not know yet if the Americans are here to help or to just take our oil."
There was also a smattering of protest, with one vocal peace activist from England screaming names at the marines and calling them, among other things, murderers and pigs. Another group of Arab men held up a sign that said in big block letters, "Human Shields." Around this was written GO HOME, YOU U.S. WANKERS.
This bothered the marines little, however. "If she wants to protest, that's her right," said Lance Cpl. Mick Whittington, 22, of Chicago, speaking of the woman who was calling the marines names. "It feels good to free the Iraqis and bring down a dictator." Cpl. Dustin Laderdorf, 18, of Oroville, Calif., looked around in disbelief. Only moments before entering the city center, he had been looking for snipers firing at the marines as they made their way into town. "It's about time we got here, because we were putting up with a lot of bull and cheated death a bunch to make it," he said. "All the other places were ghost towns, nothing but gunshots and C4 exploding."
Although the marines entered the city center with little if any resistance, there were civilian casualties. And it was unclear if they were shot in crossfire or merely shot at by scared and fidgety marines. Geert Van Moorter, a physician with Medical Aid for the Third World, a Belgian humanitarian organization, said that his hospital sent an ambulance out to take two patients to another facility but that it limped back moments later strafed by dozens of rounds of machine-gun fire that its driver said was from American guns. Two people in the ambulance died, a third picked up on the road seemed likely to die, and both the driver and co-driver were in serious condition from the shooting, Van Moorter said. He said the ambulance was followed into the emergency bay by a city bus, which was also strafed with gunfire and held about seven wounded civilians.
Other cars continued to make their way to the hospital as the day passed, all with civilians injured or killed by Marine gunfire, the doctor said. Noting that the hospital was out of nearly all necessary surgical equipment, he added: "There was blood everywhere, but I could do nothing but stroke their heads and tell them it would be OK."
"This," he said, was "another phase of the liberation."