/ 9 April 2003

US: Saddam era is over

The US military today said that Saddam Hussein’s regime is over as jubilant Iraqis greeted American troops mopping up fading resistance in Baghdad.

Looting broke out unhindered in the Iraqi capital, and the US says the country’s citizens have reached the ”tipping point” at which they have realised that the regime is coming to an end.

At central command in Qatar, Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said that President Saddam’s government was no longer in control of Baghdad.

”We are at a degree of tipping point where … there is a broad recognition that this regime is coming to an end and will not return in the way it has been in the past,” he told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.

However, he warned that the regime still posed a threat, including the possible use of chemical or biological weapons.

Central command had earlier reported ”sporadic but fierce firefights” in the capital, and predicted that its troops still faced days of tough fighting elsewhere in Iraq.

Guardian reporter James Meek, who was with US marines in Baghdad, said that resistance to the US troops had ”all but collapsed”. Downing Street said command and control in Baghdad ”appeared to have disintegrated”.

TV pictures showed Iraqis welcoming US forces, and chaotic scenes of government buildings being looted without any sign of Iraqi police or troops keeping order. There were also reports of Iraqis celebrating in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

These included the city of Irbil, 220 miles north of Baghdad, and the Guardian’s Luke Harding, in Sulaimaniya, also witnessed scenes of jubilation.

”Everybody has poured out onto the street and there are scenes of total chaos and sheer, sheer delight,” he said.

”Thousands of people are in the streets celebrating. They believe Iraq is liberated. They believe that Saddam Hussein is finished and it’s all over. There’s an absolute damburst of joy here.”

In Baghdad, the UN headquarters and shops near the Olympic Committee’s building were ransacked, as were military installations, government buildings and research institutions. Government computers, furniture and even military jeeps were taken from sites around the city.

There were also signs that Iraq’s efforts to sustain its public relations campaign were collapsing after government-employed journalists’ minders failed to turn up for their work.

Uncensored reports by foreign reporters began to come from the capital, and Iraqi state television was off the air.

Resistance seemed to fade as increasing numbers of US troops moved through the capital, hunting down small bands of Iraqi fighters. The action followed one of quietest nights in Baghdad since the conflict began.

US troops advanced on central Baghdad from the south-west of the city. Other units steadily expanded their reach, opening a new northern corridor in the city. They secured a military airport and a prison, and set fire to a Republican Guard barracks.

From the south-east, marines secured routes inside the city and pursued small, roving bands of Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. In one neighbourhood, numerous civilians flashed thumbs-up signals to the US troops.

Tikrit targeted amid claims Saddam has fled to hometown

US and UK forces were today focusing on another target: President Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit, which is still a stronghold of his loyalist troops.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Iraqi Kurdish groups opposing Saddam, claimed that he was hiding in Tikrit. US officers said special forces and air strikes were ”actively engaging” Iraqi forces in Tikrit.

Brig Gen Brooks said that US forces have tried to block the roads from Baghdad to Tikrit to stop the regime’s leaders from fleeing north.

The Kurdish claim follows speculation about whether Saddam survived Monday’s ”decapitation” strike, in which four 2 000lb US bombs destroyed a Baghdad restaurant where the Iraqi president and his sons were believed to have been meeting.

Saddam’s fate remained unknown, but his loyalists retained control of the Baghdad area targeted in the US strike intended to kill him.

The British foreign intelligence agency, MI6, reportedly told the CIA that it believed Saddam and his two sons had left the restaurant moments before it was turned into a 60ft crater.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, today stressed that it was difficult to know what was left of the Iraqi regime, and precisely who would have the authority to surrender to coalition forces.

”This conflict is not over yet,” Blair told the Commons. ”There are still some very difficult things to do. As we speak, there is still intense resistance … amongst those parts of Saddam’s regime that want to cling on to power.”

Red Cross suspends Baghdad operations

The international Red Cross said today that it had temporarily suspended operations in Baghdad after one of its staff members went missing.

The ICRC said that Vatche Arslanian (48) a Canadian, was likely to have been seriously injured after the vehicle he was travelling in was hit by gunfire. He has not been seen since Tuesday afternoon, the agency said.

The EU today agreed to spend 9.5m euros for urgent humanitarian aid to Iraq. EU representative Michael Curtis said that the money would be used to rush clean water, medical supplies and foodstuffs including rice, salt and sugar, to mainly both Baghdad and southern Iraq.

The money is the latest slice of a 21m euro emergency aid package for Iraq being prepared by the EU head office. A further 79m euros is expected to be cleared soon by EU officials.

The cash injection from the EU comes as the World Health Organisation warned that the capital’s hospitals were running out of supplies to treat burns, shrapnel wounds and spinal injuries caused by the fighting.

Sheikh to help restore order in Basra

British forces in southern Iraq were today working to restore order in the heavily-looted streets of Basra, as desperate citizens swarmed water tanker trucks one day after UK soldiers claimed Iraq’s second city.

British forces also began establishing the country’s first post-war administration yesterday, granting a local sheikh the power to set up an administrative committee representing the groups in the region.

Tribal leader to help curb looting

In other developments today:

  • British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and his French counterpart, Dominique de Villepin, today stressed the need for urgent UN involvement in the rebuilding of Iraq.

  • US-led rescue teams were today searching for the two-man crew of an American fighter jet shot down near Tikrit.

  • The US was today facing sharp criticism over yesterday’s bomb strikes that killed three foreign journalists.

  • Kurdish officials said that US and Kurdish forces had taken a key mountain from which Iraqis have been defending the northern city of Mosul.

  • Kurdish forces tightened their encirclement of Kirkuk yesterday and reportedly took control of the strategic Sekamian plateau, about six miles north of the city, following heavy coalition air strikes on Iraqi front lines. – Guardian Unlimited Â