Without fanfare, with scarcely a shot fired, American armor rolled into the center of Baghdad Wednesday and began liberating the city as Iraqis celebrated in the streets, beheading a toppled statue of their longtime ruler and looting government sites.
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations acknowledged the regime's demise. "The game is over and I hope the peace will prevail," said Mohammed Al-Douri in New York in the first admission of defeat from an Iraqi government official.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "Saddam Hussein is now taking his rightful place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Ceausescu in the pantheon of failed brutal dictators and the Iraqi people are well on their way to freedom."
While Iraqis celebrated, pockets of Saddam loyalists continued to engage U.S. forces in Baghdad, as well as in Saddam's hometown, Tikrit, said Capt. Frank Thorp, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.
The fate of Saddam and his sons also remained unknown. U.S. officials said multiple sources told them Saddam was inside a Baghdad building bombed two days earlier, but Britain's Foreign Office said it was possible he escaped.
In other developments:
Despite the day's developments, U.S. officials cautioned there still remained work to do and hard fighting.
Rumsfeld said U.S.-led forces still needed to find American prisoners of war who were captured by Iraqi troops and locate the regime's weapons of mass destruction. He encouraged Iraqi scientists, military officers and others to come forward with information, saying "rewards are available to those who help us."
Rumsfeld also said Syria was still serving as a conduit for military equipment, including night-vision goggles, heading to Iraqi forces, and he suggested that the Syrian government was helping Saddam loyalists to escape across the border.
But for now, such concerns are being eclipsed by dramatic symbols of U.S. victory in Baghdad – most notably the toppling of a 40-foot statue of Saddam by Iraqi civilians with help from U.S. Marines.
The Iraqi crowd understood perhaps more than anyone what this meant, reports CBS News Correspondent Lara Logan from Baghdad. As the giant symbol of Saddam's regime was torn form its pedestal, they pelted it with shattered concrete. When it crashed to the floor, they rushed forward frenzied to stand triumphantly on the broken metal body of the man they'd feared for so long.
No one knew if Saddam was alive or dead, but the presence of American marines was all the reassurance they needed. A floodgate of emotions suppressed for too long, finally unleashed.
"God damn to bloody hell Saddam," screamed one man.
While the center of Baghdad seems securely in the hands of U.S. Marines, other parts of the city are anything but secure.
No more than a mile and a half away from the celebrations, U.S. Marines came under fire near the Ministry of Oil building, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts. After nearly two hours of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade launches, two Iraqi snipers were killed and a third escaped. There were no American casualties.
There was also heavy fighting around Baghdad University, located in a loop of the Tigris River south of the city center.
In one neighborhood, hundreds of Iraqis cheering American troops came under heavy automatic weapons fire at sunset, apparently from Iraqi fighters. At least six people were killed in a car riddled by bullets.
Jim Wilkinson, a Central Command spokesman, said coalition forces had secured "significant parts" of Baghdad. "But there's much hard work left to do."
As Saddam's government vanished Wednesday, so did any semblance of government control. The result in Baghdad – as earlier in Basra – was widespread looting.
Iraqis were stealing from government ministries, police stations, universities and even the headquarters of the Iraq Olympic Committee, making off with computers, furniture, even military jeeps. One young man used roller skates to wheel away a refrigerator.
In the north, celebrations also broke out in at least two cities in the Kurdish autonomous region. Some honked their horns, others chanted "George Bush! George Bush!"
Some Iraqis were not rejoicing Wednesday.
"This is the destruction of Islam," said Qassim al-Shamari, 50, a laborer wearing an Arab robe. "After all, Iraq is our country. And what about all the women and children who died in the bombing?"
State television was off the air and foreign journalists said their "minders" – government agents who monitor their reporting – did not turn up for work Wednesday.
There was also no sign of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, whose daily briefings had constituted the main public face of the regime during the war.
"It's a historic moment," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the scenes of jubilation in the streets of Baghdad.
He said it reflects the desire of Iraqis to be free. But he cautioned that "we are still in the middle of a shooting war" and there are sections of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities in which coalition forces face a threat.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was also cautious. "This conflict is not over yet," he told the House of Commons. "There are still some very difficult things to do. As we speak, there is still intense resistance ... among those parts of Saddam's regime that want to cling onto power."