Kurds elated as Baghdad teeters

As US troops entered the capital Monday, many Kurds dropped their skepticism about US help.

Soccer is the usual entertainment at the Sport Tea Shop in downtown Sulaymaniyah, as framed posters celebrating Manchester United and Bayern Munich attest. But Monday's spectacle was the fall of Baghdad - or something very close to it.

With the television mounted over the door displaying pictures of US forces in the Iraqi capital, Kurdish men in the shop said they were finally convinced that the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was finished.

"Very soon we will be saved," proclaimed Ahmed Jabar, a Kurdish militiaman.

Across town, in the more rarified atmosphere of a museum established to memorialize Kurdish suffering under the rule of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party and earlier Iraqi regimes, administrative director Barzan Ahmed bounded into his office to meet a visitor.

"We are free," he said, a smile on his face and a glint in his eye. "We feel released."

Kurds, mindful the US failure to support their 1991 rebellion against Hussein's rule, have viewed the current invasion with a certain wariness. But many Kurds dropped their skepticism Monday, voicing their crystalizing conviction that the dictator was doomed.

In a dozen brief interviews, many people expressed their gratitude for the intervention of the US and Britain. They also admitted to some disappointment over the news of the death of Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, a top aide to Hussein whom Kurds remember as one of their chief tormentors.

Known as "Chemical Ali" for his use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians and for orchestrating a genocidal campaign against them in the late 1980s, Mr. Majid was reportedly found dead Monday by British troops in the southern city of Basra after Saturday coalition airstrikes on his home. (Central Command in Qatar was unable to confirm his death at press time.)

For the men stirring the sugar into their glasses of hot tea, Majid's was too quick an end.

"We wanted to have him captured so we could take him to court," said a grizzled and nearly toothless man named Ghafoor Rahim, who owns a spice shop in the Sulaymaniyah bazaar. Holding his right hand in front of him as if he were throttling the neck of a small animal, he added that "we are sorry [Majid] has been killed."

Tea shop owner Omar Darwish, a round-faced man with a bristly mustache, acknowledged that at midday some of his customers were concentrating more intently on their dominoes than on the television. But earlier in the morning, he added, a hundred people crowded into the shop, which can seat about half that number on its benches, chairs, and carpet-covered concrete ledges.

The crowd was mainly interested in seeing the images of the US forces on Baghdad's streets and in the news of Majid's demise, Mr. Darwish said. When customers saw coverage of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saheed al-Sahaf denying the presence of US forces in the capital, Darwish recalled, the crowd laughed and scorned the Iraqi minister. "His speech was incorrect," said the tea shop owner.

With Majid gone, Rahim began wondering what might become of Hussein himself.

"Put him in front of us so we can remember what has happened to the people of Iraq for the past 35 years," he pleaded. "We were the richest country in the region and now we are miserable."

A few minutes later, the television showed footage of the interior of Hussein's Basra palace, an elaborate concoction of polished marble and carved wood.

"This man spent millions on his palaces, not on his people," observed Bahman Abdullah, the owner of a photographic lab. "And he tells the world that [Iraqi] children die from hunger and lack of medication."

View of palace takeover, from a distance

By Lindsey Hilsum and Tim Lambon | Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BAGHDAD, IRAQ - The fighting started as the sun came up. For an hour, the thud and boom of cannon fire echoed across the Tigris River and through the center of Baghdad.

Just after 8:30 a.m., a fuel tank in Saddam Hussein's New Presidential Palace compound erupted into leaping flames and a spiral of black smoke. A few minutes later, four Bradley fighting vehicles - part of the latest large incursion of US armor into the capital - had pushed their way to the riverbank at the edge of the compound.

From a balcony of the Palestine Hotel, about a mile away across the river, it was possible to see movement with the naked eye, but details were clear only through a long TV-camera lens.

The palace lies on several acres that slope down to the Tigris - a vast complex of buildings, protected by soldiers armed with rifles, AK-47s, and rocket-propelled grenades. At the far end of the peninsula, two Iraqi soldiers could be seen scrambling out of a foxhole, running across the sand, and dodging down into another.

A few minutes later, four soldiers ran across open ground toward the river, presumably to hide in the reeds. A half-dozen US troops left their vehicles and took up positions facing away from the river toward the trees that surround the palace. Several explosions appeared to be from grenades launched by the Americans.

By early afternoon, the US armored vehicles were still in the palace compound, and artillery was launched against the area - presumably an Iraqi attempt at countering the takeover.

And as the day wore on, people started poking their noses out of their houses to see what was happening. A few men drank tea at teahouses, while groups stood chatting on street corners. Most were unwilling to talk to a foreigner about what was going on.

"I hear there's been fighting in the palace," said a tomato seller, before his colleague silenced him. It is still too dangerous for Iraqis to discuss the possibility of a US takeover - the eyes and ears of the regime are still present.

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