A journalist's eye view: The day Baghdad fell

My morning and the afternoon of Wednesday, April 9, were two different worlds in Iraq's capital city.

In the morning, Baghdad was a portrait of fear, empty streets, looting and the terror of mystery gunmen. By afternoon, the air was brimming with joy, relief, and the freedom for the first time in 35 years to ask some difficult questions openly.

A blast of artillery fire woke me at dawn in the emergency ward of Baghdad's specialist neurosurgery hospital. Surgeons had operated until after midnight on a colleague injured by a shell from a US M-1 Abrams tank that struck the Palestine Hotel the day before.

In the next bed, a terribly wounded boy of 10 or 11 lay unconscious, probably dying, brought in the day before by people who said his entire family had been killed by US shellfire. Nobody at the hospital even knew his name.

On the mile drive from the hospital to the Palestine Hotel overlooking the Tigris, I saw only two armed Iraqis. Trenches and sandbagged emplacements outside government buildings stood empty. The defenders of Baghdad, the motley array of Baath Party militiamen and plainclothes members of the intelligence services, were now gone.

At the hotel, I was amazed to find a man selling the day's newspapers. I bought all four national dailies - all with Saddam Hussein's photo on the front page - in case they were the last.

Later, when I drove with colleagues to a shopping street, we found plenty of people on the streets and vegetable stalls and bakeries open. But people said there had been looting and shooting nearby. They were frightened.

"There's no security," said a man by a produce shop. "Are the Americans going to bring security? Are they going to stop the robbing and looting?"

Asked what she would do when US forces arrived, a teenaged girl said: "If I see them, I want to kill them. I hate them. They came to steal our oil."

Her father added: "Nobody wants to be occupied by another country. Everyone would rather be occupied by his own country. They are going to be worse than anything we have seen before."

We found the looters a mile away, carrying away everything they could from two United Nations buildings. One man was dragging a desk with two computers and a leather chair piled on top along the road. Others in a battered white truck were trying to haul away a half-ton orange generator.

We drove on, edging up streets where we could see cars moving and people walking, stopping to ask what was happening when we saw the road ahead empty.

At a big road junction, we found the charred skeletons of two civilian cars and a truck and the street strewn with rubble. White tape tied between lamp posts blocked the road southeast. The Iraqis don't use tape: The Americans were here.

Further on, nothing moved on the raised road leading to an intersection. We circled the roundabout and decided to go back, but a group of men at the door of a mosque shouted at us to stop and help.

A thin man in civilian clothes lay on the pavement, pale, sweating, and moaning from a deep wound in his left thigh. My colleague Tim Lambon, who is a trained paramedic, splinted his leg and we carried him into our van.

While we raced through deserted streets to the hospital, the man murmured his story. He had visited his sister at the hospital, and took a taxi to go back home. But armed men in a minibus had stopped the taxi, forced him out, and shot him in the leg without any explanation. The terrified taxi driver drove him back to the roundabout and dumped him outside the mosque.

When we returned to the Palestine Hotel, we found some television crews had met and filmed American troops. But Iraqi colleagues were swapping stories of young men from the poor suburb of Saddam city on the rampage, surrounding frightened Baath party militiamen near the Interior Ministry, and random shootings. A Portuguese television crew said armed men in civilian clothes had been dragged out of their car, robbed their money and cameras and beaten them up; they were rescued by Baath Party officers.

In the afternoon, we left the hotel, and with some trepidation, went looking for the Americans. As we entered a roundabout in the van, my colleague Craig Nelson shouted that he had seen an American tank coming down the street ahead.

We debated what to do and then turned back, parked and got out. We walked slowly up to the roundabout and suddenly the tank roared out of the road to our left. We put our hands up and kept walking slowly forward, our driver Yousef al-Taie holding a white scarf on a stick.

The tank's flat turret swivelled smoothly, pointing its gun at us, then at our car, then back at us. Another tank and a then two Amtraks, vast amphibious troop carriers, clanked into sight, then three Humvees. I saw US troops in desert camouflage walking along the side of the road and a small group of Iraqis on the far side of the roundabout waving and cheering.

Clearly, the battle of Baghdad was over. We filmed and took notes, then took photographs of each other in front of the tanks.

Other journalists and camera crews began arriving. The US soldiers in two Humvees kept guns trained down the street ahead, watching a white car approaching, waving to curious Iraqis to keep away. Families watched from balconies of the low apartment blocks around the roundabout.

Then, around a corner, a symbolic moment. Two young men climbed onto the concrete porch of a three-story building which turned out to be the accounting department of the Iraqi Air Defense Force, and started ripping a 10-foot poster of Saddam Hussein with knives. A small crowd below cheered.

We started interviewing the crowd.

When had the militiamen and fighters disappeared?

"Two days ago!" they all yelled with glee.

When did they believe the government of Saddam Hussein had fallen?

"When we saw the tanks, when we saw them with our own eyes," they shouted, pointing at their eyes.

An old man with a bristled white beard edged closer. He wanted to talk.

Had the war been necessary, we asked.

"With this fellow, yes," he said quietly. "If you said anything against Saddam Hussein, he would cut off your head and the heads of all your family."

By late afternoon, we drove back towards the Palestine Hotel, hoping to take overhead shots of the US forces advancing up the road before sunset.

But the vehicles were too fast for us: two Humvees raced ahead and then two tanks roared out of a side turning behind them. We drove alongside them on the wrong side of the road. A German photographer with spiked blonde hair crouched on the turret of the lead tank.

I panted up the stairs of the Palestine hotel, dripping with sweat under my flak jacket. By the time I reached our fourth-flour balcony, several M-1 Abrams tanks and Amtraks were parked in a circle outside the hotel, surrounding a plaza with fountains, a semi-circle of triumphant columns and a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein.

As I write these last words, a US vehicle designed for towing tanks, has just pulled the statue off its plinth. A cheering crowd is now dancing on the wreckage.

Paul Eedle is with Britain's Channel 4 News team.

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