The fall of Baghdad marks a key transition in the war: A brutal regime is over. Now the tough task of managing peace begins.
WASHINGTON — One of the most brutal and entrenched tyrannies of the age fell Wednesday with a crack heard around the world.
Saddam Hussein was in power for 30 years - longer than Hitler, or Stalin. Today his whereabouts are unknown, but he is either a fugitive in an Iraq he no longer controls, or simply is no more.
In the end, the United States-led military campaign swarmed up from Kuwait and over its main objective, Baghdad, with a ruthless speed that evoked the first Gulf War. It did so while incurring minimal casualties to itself, and leaving most of Iraq's infrastructure intact.
The human cost for Iraqis has yet to be counted, however, and could be considerable. "In my view, my personal opinion, I think it's a great success," says Gen. John Tilelli, who served as a division commander - and Central Command chief Tommy Franks' boss - during the first Gulf War.
After days of uncertainty as to whether the battle for Baghdad would be protracted, the sudden fall of the city, symbolized by the toppling of the giant Hussein statue in Firdos Square, came as something of a shock.
Trading on the New York Stock Exchange virtually ceased as traders crowded around video screens to watch the effort.
At a Boston branch of T.D. Waterhouse, an investor-services firm, the same dynamic held. Workers stared as a US tank recovery vehicle ripped the statue from its pedestal.
"It's an historic moment, but there's still a lot of uncertainty.... I think we still have a long way to go," says Pete Simko, a Waterhouse employee.
US officials warn that tough fighting may lie ahead with pockets of resistance in Baghdad, and to the north, near Hussein's home region of Tikrit.
While organized resistance crumbled in Baghdad Wednesday, discarded uniforms and other evidence indicated that paramilitary forces had simply melted away and rejoined the civilian population. As many as 28,000 fedayeen fighters remain in the city, according to US intelligence, and they could yet exact a toll on occupying US forces.
But in some ways this second Gulf war has so far been more surprising for what has not happened, than for what has.
A long list of dire predictions did not come true - or at least has not yet come true. Hussein did not set the oil wells on fire, though strikes by US Special Forces may have denied him the opportunity to do so in any case. He did not fire missiles at Israel.
Most important, he did not use chemical or biological weapons, despite repeated warnings from US intelligence and experts outside government that he would do just that with his back up against Baghdad's walls.
"I think it's ironic that this was a war to keep him from using [weapons of mass destruction], and he ends up not using them in the situation it was most likely in which he might use them," says Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
If fighting now ends quickly and relatively normal life returns to Baghdad's streets, America's Arab allies may benefit, adds Mr. Walsh.
An end to the images of injured Iraqis on Al Jazeera might make it easier for Cairo or Amman to control the anger in its streets.
"A lot will depend on what happens now, the nature of US governance in Iraq" says Walsh. "How quickly will a new leadership take over? What is the role of the US in the postwar setting?"
At an open-air cafe in downtown Amman, however, anger and shock remained palpable.
The same image that many Americans find inspiring - the topping of Hussein's statue - Jordanians found depressing.
"It is very humiliating for the Arab world. Saddam talked on Arabs' behalf," says Fuad Harrasis, a government employee.
The few moments when overenthusiastic marines wound on American flag around the statue's face particularly bothered the cafe's patrons.
"They [the Americans] are telling the world, 'We're on top,' " says Yussef Yussef, an Egyptian waiter at the cafe. "They want to show people they control the world. It's bad for all Arabs."
On the other side of the world, at a Cuban cafe in Miami, the reaction to the same image was as different as Cuban and Arab coffee.
"This is a symbol of the coming freedom for the Iraqi people," says Marie Antoniette Feijoo, a cafe worker. "They are going to have a better life."
At the least, the apparent US victory will change the balance of power in the region. Iran and Syria will now have to deal with a very different Iraq in their midst - not that either regime was enamored of Hussein.
In this way, the effect of the second Gulf war could turn out to be more profound than that of the first. The first President Bush fought Iraq to maintain the Middle East status quo.
His son launched an invasion to overturn it.
The only real historical analogy to the current moment is the British control of the Middle East prior to World War I, says Lewis Wolfson, a professor emeritus of international relations at American University in Washington.
Will the US be an imperial power in the region, as the British were? Or will the US presence in the end prove to have been more benign?
"It's going to be a real test that the Brits never really passed because of the way they ruled these countries, with an iron fist," says Mr. Wolfson.