BAGHDAD, Iraq - Saddam Hussein's rule collapsed in a matter of hours yesterday across much of this capital city as ordinary Iraqis took to the streets in the thousands to topple Hussein's statues, loot government ministries, interrogation centers and to give a cheering welcome to advancing U.S. troops.
Much of Baghdad became, in a moment, a showcase of unbridled enthusiasm for the United States as much as it metamorphosed into a crucible of unbridled hatred for Hussein and his 24-year rule.
U.S. troops, but almost as much as any Westerner caught up in the tide of people rushing into the streets, were met with scenes that summoned comparisons to the freeing of Eastern Europe 14 years ago.
There was no word on the fate of Hussein or his sons, Odai and Qusai, targeted by U.S. planes that bombed a western residential area of the city Monday. But his whereabouts - even his very existence - seemed irrelevant as U.S. Marines used an M-88 tank recovery vehicle to topple a large statue of Hussein in the central al-Firdos Square.
Crowds surged forward to stomp on the downed statue, whose head had briefly been covered in a U.S. flag, and several men dragged its severed head through the streets.
A burly 39-year-old man named Qifa, assigned by Hussein's information ministry to keep watch on an American reporter, paused at midmorning, outside the inferno that had been the headquarters of Iraq's National Olympic Committee, to ask the reporter to take a grip of his hand.
The Olympic committee building, on an expressway on Baghdad's eastern outskirts, had been one of the most widely feared places in Iraq, used by Hussein's older son, Odai, to torture and kill opponents of the government. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqis are said to have died in the building's basements.
"Touch me, touch me, tell me that this is real, tell me that the nightmare is really over," the man said, tears running down his face.
It was real, at last. When the city awoke to find that the U.S. capture on Monday of the government quarter in west Baghdad had been followed overnight by a deep American thrust into the city's eastern half, the fear ingrained in most Iraqis by nearly 24 years under Hussein's brutally repressive government evaporated, to be replaced by a bursting, irrepressible urge for freedom, and, among the looters, a carefree, joyous defiance of law that lapped over, at many major government buildings, to setting places afire.
Iraqis on foot, on motor scooters, in cars and minivans and trucks, alone and in groups, children and adults and senior citizens, headed for any point on the map where U.S. troops had taken up positions - at expressway junctions, outside the United Nations headquarters, at two hotels on the Tigris River where Western newsmen had been sequestered by Hussein's government - and erupted with enthusiasm and gratitude.
Shouts to the American soldiers of "Thank you, mister, thank you" in English, of "Welcome, my friend, welcome," of "Good, good, good" and "Yes, yes, mister" mingled with cries of "Good, George Bush!" and "Down Saddam!"
A middle-age man with a bouquet of paper flowers pushed through a crowd attempting to topple a Hussein statue outside the oil ministry and passed among American troops, distributing them one at a time, each with a kiss on the cheek.
A woman with two small children perched in the open roof of a car maneuvering to get close to a Marine Corps unit assisting in toppling a Hussein statue outside the Palestine and Sheraton hotels, the quarters for foreign newsmen, wept as she shouted, "Thank you, mister, thank you very much."
The U.S. advances that began Tuesday night, from the southeastern edges of a city plunged into pitch darkness by the failure of the city's electricity grid, resulted by nightfall yesterday in extending U.S. control over a wide southeastern quadrant of the city up to the Tigris River's eastern bank.
To this could be added the American occupation of the government quarter on the river's west bank, an area of several square miles that includes many of the principal seats of Hussein's power, including his main palaces and many government ministries, after a fierce daylong battle Monday.
How far U.S. troops enlarged that western foothold in a day of light skirmishing yesterday was not clear.
One reporter, lulled into a false sense of security by a day of Iraqis vilifying Hussein, approached a group of youths to ask how they felt about the American military advances.
"Bush good?" the reporter asked, using the English phrase that had become the mantra of the city's eastern districts to overcome the temporary absence of an interpreter. The youths, quickly joined by older, more threatening-looking men with Kalashnikov rifles and shoulder-holstered rockets, responded with a hostility that could have been found almost anywhere in the city until the popular eruptions at dawn yesterday.
"Bush down shoes!" the youths answered, one of them spitting on the ground, meaning that President Bush was good only for being trampled on. "America down shoes!"
But on the eastern side of the river, even in no man's areas where the U.S. troops had not yet reached, virtually every Iraqi reporters encountered among crowds that totaled in the tens of thousands, was suddenly a torch of enmity for Hussein.
One group of young men who marched out of Saddam City, an impoverished district that is home to 2 million Shiites who have been the most repressed of all Hussein's victims, were asked as they dashed from one American armored vehicle to another with their handshakes and the cries of welcome why a visitor only a few days ago had heard only the quietest whispers of dissent, amid a torrent of adoration for Hussein.
"Because we were frightened," one young man said.
"We were frightened of being killed."