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Iraqis Work to Topple Saddam Statue

Aired April 9, 2003 - 09:59   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: For folks who are just joining us here, as we almost reach the top of the hour, 10:00 a.m. on the East coast, you're witnessing dozens of Iraqis take hammers and actually, I am just seeing one pick here, one ladder, and a large rope to try to take down this towering statue of Saddam Hussein.
At the beginning of the stages -- and we have been watching this now for over 50 minutes. They started throwing shoes at the statue, and then brought in some of this other equipment in attempt to take it down. This -- prior to our seeing this, we saw crowds of these civilians come out. In some cases they waved white T-shirts and white flags to the Marines that had come into this Firdos Square in the central part of Baghdad.

We need to contrast this, though, with what is being experienced just two miles away, where our Martin Savidge is on duty on the campus of Baghdad University as the Marines have become involved in what he has called an all-out, complete engagement. He's calling it warfare on this campus with Marine infantry on the move, in some cases going room to room on campus to look for what appear to be some opportunistic fire.

On the phone with us now is Simon Robinson with "TIME" magazine. He is with the 7th Marines. Simon, are you allowed to tell us exactly where you are physically right now?

SIMON ROBINSON, "TIME": I'm on that square where you can see the statue with the rope around its neck. Looking at Marines, there are a lot of -- I'd say there's around 1,000 Iraqis in all in the whole area. There's Iraqis picking little yellow flowers and coming up and giving them to Marines. A lot of the Marines, I think, are still nervous. But a few of them have taken their Kevlar helmets off and have got their floppy sun hats on, and obviously feeling relaxed enough to talk to Iraqis. A lot of Iraqis walking up to people and wanting to chat.

As we came up toward this area where the Palestine Hotel is, and this big square where the statue is, Iraqis were coming onto the streets and shouting out, Thank you, very good, very good. A little boy ran up to me and said, Bush is good.

ZAHN: Now, does that contrast with what you saw in the outer perimeters of the city, or did you get very much that same reception on your whole move into Baghdad?

ROBINSON: No, it's quite a different mood. The further out we were, the -- I'm sorry. They were curious -- as I'm talking to you, people are just rushing toward a certain Marine vehicle, which is broadcasting a message in Arabic. Obviously, a lot of people picking up on that. So the mood, as we've got closer to the center of eastern Baghdad has become more jubilant.

ZAHN: There has to be, though, Simon, a level of concern about some of the snipers that the Pentagon knows have dispersed throughout the city, and they're described as well-armed and strategically positioned.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. It's an interesting situation because the battalion that I'm with, which is 3-4 Battalion with the 7th Marines encountered very little or next to no resistance as they pushed off from the southeastern suburbs of Baghdad to the area that I'm now in in eastern Baghdad, but of course, they know that this battle is not over yet. And when they reached the Palestine Hotel, which, as I said, was where most of the press based in Baghdad have been staying. Surreally (ph), the colonel of the battalion was met by the duty manager, who invited him into his office. But the Marines quickly took up positions through the lobby of the hotel and secured areas and, as I'm seeing, they are arrayed around this square. So while Iraqis are walking around quite freely and seemingly unconcerned about any threat from snipers, the Marines are guarding various positions.

ZAHN: Simon, you described some of the Iraqis picking yellow flowers, handing them to Marines, a young child coming up to you saying "Bush is good," can you tell us anything else you've heard on the street coming from Iraqi civilians?

ROBINSON: Not really. I yet haven't got a chance to talk to many Iraqis. There are some strange scenes with Western human shields, peace protesters, and a lot of the Iraqis are kind of joking around with them, almost half mocking them, given that the Marines have arrived in the middle of the city. But most Iraqis (UNINTELLIGIBLE) kind of walking around. There is a rope around the neck of Saddam...

ZAHN: Simon, you're breaking up a little, we're going to let you move about 20 yards to see if we can get a clearer telephone signal here. Are you still with us, Simon?

ROBINSON: Yes, yes -- as I'm speaking to you I just heard gunshots from -- there's people on the outside of the Hotel Palestine (UNINTELLIGIBLE) gunshots over the last couple of weeks. They are banging down a big sign of Saddam, a metal sign, so that's what the noise is that you can hear ringing out. I see families, women walking along, holding children, and a lot of families out here just in the center of the square, having a look at this very strange scene of American military forces in their city.

ZAHN: We were talking with a corporal who is also with the Marines saying that they clearly didn't encounter the kind of resistance they expected. Can you give us any context for that?

ROBINSON: Yes. Three days ago the battalion that I'm with crossed a river to the southeast of the city. They met some quite strong resistance there. But once they crossed the bridge, they found bunkers empty, full of RPGs, rocket propelled grenades, and small arms. And also, interestingly, full of military boots. It as if the defenders of Baghdad had left, didn't want to be identified by their boots. So they left their boots and have either decided not to fight or blended back into the population, and basically, from two days ago, the Colonel (UNINTELLIGIBLE) McCoy (ph), the colonel of the -- the commander of the battalion that I'm with, said that two days ago was decisive because at that point, at least his battalion in his area of command had broken the will of the Iraqis to fight, and they pushed -- they were able to push up into eastern Baghdad proper, in just a couple of days.

ZAHN: Simon, as you were just talking over the last 30 seconds, we did see a group of Iraqis crush a portrait of Saddam Hussein, and I guess it's worth mentioning what a megalomaniac he was -- and perhaps is -- obviously, we don't know what his status is at this hour. But at a time when sanctions had really driven the country down, he continued to boost his image with naming streets after himself, bridges, shopping centers, his pictures on the wall of every office, and business and, of course, on every lavender-colored bill in people's pockets.


ROBINSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And as you're speaking, there's a type of American (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) which has driven up on to the main square. You might be able to hear the noise of it. And it's driving across the very last square, across the garden and towards the statue of Saddam. Obviously, of interest (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that the Iraqi people are coming around, fairly excited I think...

ZAHN: Yes, I was wondering how long it was going to take to get some help from a machine here, because these Iraqis have been trying to bring this statue down for, I guess, as we've watched this, for almost an hour now.

ROBINSON: Close to an hour. Exactly. Yes. So the tank is actually driving up the first couple of stairs towards the statue (UNINTELLIGIBLE). It's a metal statue, and it is on a large concrete (UNINTELLIGIBLE). This tank, of course, has driven away (AUDIO GAP) through Iraqi over the last three weeks (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the duration of the war. I'm not sure exactly how it's going to knock it over, or what exactly it is going to do. Perhaps -- it looks perhaps like it is going to attach the rope to the tank and attempt to pull the statue of Saddam over.

ZAHN: These Iraqi civilians, at first started pelting the statue with shoes a couple hours ago, and we picked up the shot about an hour ago when someone had actually scaled the pedestal of the statue with a ladder, tried to wrap the noose around the neck of Saddam Hussein, went back down to the pedestal, all we could see was one ax that they seems to be whacking away at the base with.

ROBINSON: Exactly. It's a very large statue, and doing it that way would take a long time (UNINTELLIGIBLE) very well-built statue. And as you mentioned earlier, in every town that I've come through in Iraq, there's been pictures of Saddam or statues.

ZAHN: In fact, there was just a special on one of the HBO channels that did a piece on an museum that is entirely devoted to portraits of Saddam Hussein, hundreds and hundreds of elaborate portraits done, most of them with a smiling face.

ROBINSON: And often a very young Saddam, probably in his better- looking days. But as you say, in every town, there's big portraits of Saddam outside the Baath Party headquarters (UNINTELLIGIBLE) went into had pictures of Saddam, official portraits. Pictures done on (UNINTELLIGIBLE) painted with smiles. Now, people are scaling the statue as I'm watching it. Climbing up (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Saddam's neck. It's a statue with his right arm raised, kind of a "follow me" gesture.

ZAHN: Simon, if you could reposition yourself maybe five or ten yards, I want to see if we can clear up your signal. You were just breaking up a little there. Simon, one of the things that we lost when the line started breaking up was something you had to say about human shields. Are there many of them in the square right now, and you said that the Iraqis are half-mocking them.

ROBINSON: Yes. There's a few dozen, I would say. I overheard one argument between one of the human shields, sounded like a British woman in her 20s who was arguing with one of the Marines, and accusing the Marines of being murderers. And the Marines talked back a bit, but mostly chose to ignore her, I guess. And most of them are just watching on now (UNINTELLIGIBLE) through the duration of the war -- before the war, and the -- the Iraqis are now climbing onto the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) (AUDIO GAP).

I'm not sure quite what the intention of the tank is.

ZAHN: It's going to be fascinating to watch how this effort's going to move forward here. They've had a pretty good wrap around Saddam Hussein's neck for the last 45 minutes, but obviously they're going to try to attach it to the tank in some way here.

Simon, there was another point where you were breaking up where I thought you said you had heard gunfire and maybe you said, in fact, what that ended up being was a portrait of Saddam Hussein being thrown to the ground. Can you clarify that for us?

ROBINSON: Sorry. There was a large portrait on the front of the Palestine Hotel. And, in fact, people were taking a sledge hammer to it. It's a metal portrait, so that was the sound. I think that over the last three weeks I've become so used to the sound of gunshot, and instantly thought that that's what it was.

Indeed, two days ago when -- three days ago, when the Marines were crossing the river into the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Baghdad, there was some fairly fierce fighting, and the Marines had to cross a bridge which had been partially destroyed by retreating Iraqi troops, and in the end they had to span the gap in the bridge that had been blown by metal girders. And they ran across that and into the -- onto the north bank of this river, which is a tributary for the Tigris. And once they were there, since then they have encountered very little resistance. So, in fact, over the last couple of days (AUDIO GAP).

ZAHN: Well, this scene should certainly leave very little doubt in everyone's minds today that if the regime isn't all but gone, it certainly is in disarray. There was so much concern that Iraqi citizens would not feel a sense of freedom to take to the streets, and in any way wave on the Marines who have come to town. But that is clearly an indication of less intimidation in the system, right, Simon?

ROBINSON: Yes. Even as you're speaking, more and more Iraqis are coming out onto the square. A family just passed me by with some young girls and the young girls were laughing and pointing at Saddam, and it's probably for them the first time in their lives that they can laugh at Saddam and get away with it, at least in public.

So it seems to be moving slightly. People have stepped back from it. Perhaps it's about to make its move. Like most things in war, there's a lot of -- between action, there's a lot of sitting around and waiting.

ZAHN: The administration saying the reason why we haven't seen more of this kind of immediate welcoming of coalition troops was the fact that as long as there were so-called death squads, they certainly didn't feel comfortable to cheer their liberation.

Now, just to put this all into context, Simon, we need explain for folks joining us now that what our Martin Savidge has seen just about two miles away from here on the campus of Baghdad University is alarmingly different, strikingly different, is probably a better way of saying it.

He was talking to us live when he described an all-out, in his words, "complete engagement," warfare on the campus, and he described Marine infantry on the move with room-to-room searches going on.

ROBINSON: Yes, I can hear you.

ZAHN: Simon, are you back with us?

ROBINSON: I am, yes. I can hear you. Absolutely. The -- of course, this is one area of Baghdad, and it seems to be fairly secure area at the moment, but there are many other parts of the city that have not yet been secured. There's a few hundred meters between where I'm standing and the river. On the other side of that river are forces from the 3rd ID -- the 3rd Infantry Division of the Army -- American Army. But there is a few hundred meters to that river which have yet to be secured. There are parts to the northeast of the city which have yet to be secured. And, of course, as Martin Savidge reported, just two kilometers -- two miles from where I stand, where they are about to pull over a statue of Saddam, there's still fierce fighting. So this is not over yet at all.

ZAHN: Simon, let's pause. Does it look like to you the rope is now attached to the tank?

ROBINSON: From where I'm standing it's difficult (AUDIO GAP) it looks like (AUDIO GAP).

ZAHN: Actually, it is an APC, it's blocked out of my picture here in the lower quadrant of your screen.


ZAHN: We're going to try to re-establish our contact with Simon as we fill you in on what is going on at this hour. We have been watching this picture in Firdos Square for the better part of an hour, Iraqi citizens coming out, pelting this statue of Saddam Hussein with shoes. They later brought out a ladder, scaled the pedestal to the top of the statue, wrapped a noose around Saddam Hussein's neck, and they have been trying to go it alone without any kind of military equipment here, and that obviously hasn't worked quite yet. We only saw what appeared to be one sledgehammer that they were exchanging. We saw a very strong, probably 250-pound Iraqi starting at it, and then sharing the sledgehammer with much lighter Iraqis to have at the base here, and this is what it looks like at this hour.

We now have Ken Pollack with us to give us a broad view on what this is we're witnessing here -- Ken, welcome.

KEN POLLACK, CNN ANALYST: Thanks, Paula. I think what you're seeing is the start of the collapse of this regime, the final death throes of this regime. The Iraqi people recognize that the U.S. and the British are here to stay. They are not going to abandon them once again. Of course, that was one of the great fears of so many Iraqis having seen the U.S. march into Iraq in 1991, only to pull back at the last minute before removing Saddam's regime. I think increasingly, they have the sense that Saddam truly is finished. There probably are rumors spreading all throughout Baghdad as to whether he's alive or he's dead, or he's fled. And that's also a point to remember. As we saw with that incredibly dramatic footage from Martin Savidge, this isn't over yet. Saddam still has loyalists out there. He may still well be alive, his sons may still be alive, and there are also parts of Iraq that are not yet under the coalition's control, in particular, Saddam's hometown of Tikrit. And chances are there are a lot of his loyalists who are holing up in Tikrit and that too will remain a running sore until that is reduced.

ZAHN: And is the expectation that any of those forces in Tikrit who are loyal to him will come to Baghdad, or they will stay in Tikrit?

POLLACK: My guess is that those forces will stay in Tikrit. But again, as Martin Savidge found, there are still forces in Baghdad who will remain loyal to Saddam. And many of the former Republican Guards and the Fedayeen are probably dressed now in civilian clothes, and we could see, over the next couple of weeks, sporadic terrorist attacks by the Fedayeen even in Baghdad. If they get the chance, if they get the opportunity to take a shot at American servicemen, or maybe at a group of Iraqis who are celebrating Saddam's demise, it's not impossible that you couldn't see attacks on those groups of people over the next few months until the U.S. and coalition forces working with Iraqis can root them out. And that really is the major change going on here which is that the Fedayeen rely on the prescience of the populous to be able to carry out their attacks. If the populous is willing to take an active role against them and support coalition measures against them, the ability of the Fedayeen to operate is going to diminish very quickly. So the hope is that the people of Baghdad will increasingly cooperate with the coalition, help them root out these Fedayeen elements.

ZAHN: And, Ken, if anybody in our audience watching right now has any doubts about this being the start of the collapse of the regime, Reuters is reporting the vice president, Dick Cheney, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors has just said this -- quote -- "we are seeing the collapse of the central regime authority."

POLLACK: Yes, I think that's absolutely right. In particular, the key here is the willingness of the people of Baghdad to start coming out onto the street, start taking acts of civil defiance like what they're doing with the different statues. This is a clear sense that the people of Iraq themselves feel that the regime is crumbling.

It's always important to remember that what we have seen from the Iraqi people over the last three weeks is that they are so terrified of Saddam Hussein's regime that they were unwilling to take real action against it while there was any real doubt in their minds. The more people are coming into the streets, this is just reinforcing the sense that Saddam truly is finished.


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