The Americans "liberated" Baghdad yesterday, destroyed the centre of Saddam Hussein's quarter-century of brutal dictatorial power but brought behind them an army of looters who unleashed upon the ancient city a reign of pillage and anarchy. It was a day that began with shellfire and air strikes and blood-bloated hospitals and ended with the ritual destruction of the dictator's statues. The mobs shrieked their delight. Men who, for 25 years, had grovellingly obeyed Saddam's most humble secret policeman turned into giants, bellowing their hatred of the Iraqi leader as his vast and monstrous statues thundered to the ground.
"It is the beginning of our new freedom," an Iraqi shopkeeper shouted at me. Then he paused, and asked: "What do the Americans want from us now?' The great Lebanese poet Kalil Gibran once wrote that he pitied the nation that welcomed its tyrants with trumpetings and dismissed them with hootings of derision. And the people of Baghdad performed this same deadly ritual yesterday, forgetting that they – or their parents – had behaved in identical fashion when the Arab Socialist Baath Party destroyed the previous dictatorship of Iraq's generals and princes. Forgetting, too, that the "liberators" were a new and alien and all-powerful occupying force with neither culture nor language nor race nor religion to unite them with Iraq.
As tens of thousands of Shia Muslim poor from the vast slums of Saddam City poured into the centre of Baghdad to smash their way into shops, offices and government ministries – an epic version of the same orgy of theft and mass destruction that the British did so little to prevent in Basra – US Marines watched from only a few hundred yards away as looters made off with cars, rugs, hoards of money, computers, desks, sofas, even door-frames.
In Al-Fardus (Paradise) Square, US Marines helped a crowd of youths pull down the gaunt and massive statue of Saddam by roping it to an armoured personnel carrier. It toppled menacingly forward from its plinth to hang lengthways above the ground, right arm still raised in fraternal greetings to the Iraqi people.
It was a symbolic moment in more ways than one. I stood behind the first man to seize a hatchet and smash at the imposing grey marble plinth. But within seconds, the marble had fallen away to reveal a foundation of cheap bricks and badly cracked cement. That's what the Americans always guessed Saddam's regime was made of, although they did their best – in the late Seventies and early Eighties – to arm him and service his economy and offer him political support, to turn him into the very dictator he became.
In one sense, therefore, America – occupying the capital of an Arab nation for the first time in its history – was helping to destroy what it had spent so much time and money creating. Saddam was "our" man and yesterday, metaphorically at least, we annihilated him. Hence the importance of all those statue- bashing mobs, of all that looting and theft.
But of the real and somewhat less imposing Saddam, there was no trace.