BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Widespread, often jubilant looting of government buildings erupted Wednesday in numerous Baghdad neighborhoods, a clear sign that Saddam Hussein’s authority had collapsed. U.S. Army and Marine units pushed from the east and west to link up in the city center.
At police stations, universities, government ministries, the headquarters of the Iraq Olympic Committee, looters unhindered by any police presence made off with computers, furniture, 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.
Even as the populace seemed suddenly to feel free of Saddam’s control, U.S. officers said their forces faced continued resistance from small groups of holdout pro-Saddam fighters. The U.S Central Command reacted cautiously to the euphoria and chaos in Baghdad.
“All of us have come to expect the absolute worse behavior from this dying regime, so it’s important to remember that tough fighting may lie ahead,” said a command spokesman, Lt. Mark Kitchens. “However, we are heartened by what we are seeing, and feel a sense of warmth that the citizens of Baghdad are taking to the streets to celebrate their freedom.”
Regarding looting, which has occurred in several Iraqi cities, Kitchens said, “It is certainly something we discourage, and when and where we can make a difference we will certainly try to do so.”
U.S. commanders also focused attention on other targets to the north – Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, still a stronghold of loyalist troops, and the northern city of Mosul. Kitchens said special operations forces and airstrikes were “actively engaging” Iraqi forces in both cities.
The fate of Saddam remained unknown; his supporters retained control of the upscale Baghdad neighborhood targeted by four 2,000-pound bombs in a U.S. strike aimed at killing the Iraqi president.
Elsewhere in the capital, however, U.S. forces steadily expanded their reach, securing a military airport, capturing a prison, setting fire to a Republican Guard barracks. They are now operating in every quadrant of the city.
The Marines pushed forward Wednesday, securing routes inside the city and pursuing roving bands of three or four Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
Maj. Gen. Buford Blount II, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, visited a command post set up at the New Presidential Palace, overlooking the Tigris River in central Baghdad. Col. David Perkins, whose 2nd Brigade was at the command post, told Blount his forces can go anywhere in the city and meet only sporadic sniping.
The two commanders discussed what buildings could be used to house U.S. military units and a new government to replace Saddam’s.
“That’s the next mental jump, is for the Iraqis to realize that even if he (Saddam Hussein) is still alive, he’s not in charge anymore,” Perkins said.
There were signs that the Iraqi government’s efforts to sustain its public relations campaign had collapsed. State television went off the air Tuesday, and on Wednesday, foreign journalists said their “minders” – government agents who monitor their reporting – did not turn up for work.
Also, there was no sign of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, whose daily briefings have constituted the main public face of the regime during the war.
While intent on completing the takeover of Baghdad, U.S. commanders also were turning their attention to Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown in the desert 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.
Coalition rescue teams were searching Wednesday for the crew of a F-15E fighter jet that went down on a mission near Tikrit. Central Command said the cause of the incident was unknown.
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.
Residents of al-Mansour estimated that 14 people, including at least seven children, were killed and scores wounded in homes and shops adjacent to the targeted site.
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.
The Pentagon said the U.S. military’s death toll from the war rose to 96, while eight Americans were missing and seven held as prisoners. Thirty British personnel have been killed; the Iraqi forces’ death toll is unknown, but believed to number in the thousands.