WASHINGTON, April 9 (UPI) -- When wars are won, when longstanding foul dictatorships that have bestrode the earth suddenly splinter and crash to smithereens, there is usually a striking image that captures the moment for eternity, to echo through the generations of human memory.
The great Soviet war photographer Yevgeny Khaldei captured one such moment with his amazing picture of a Red Army soldier raising the Hammer and Sickle atop the ruined Reichstag amid the smoking rubble of conquered Berlin in May 1945. The sight of Russian President Boris Yeltsin sitting atop a Soviet tank as a hard-line coup to restore the Soviet communist dictatorship collapsed around him is another.
Now the image of the giant, 40-foot-high statue of Saddam Hussein, pulled to the ground with a more than symbolic noose around its neck in central Baghdad Wednesday, is a third.
Was Saddam already dead when this took place? He probably was although we do not yet know for sure. My friend and United Press International colleague Claude Salhani filing from London cites reports attributed to British intelligence sources that Saddam left the meeting he had convened in a western Baghdad restaurant Monday just before four 2,000-pound bunker-buster bombs obliterated it. And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was understandably cautious when asked for his assessment of Saddam's fate at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday.
But several other points should be noted that, although certainly not conclusive, give food for thought.
First, Saddam -- if he survived the bombing strike -- made no effort whatsoever to produce a video news clip or give any taped statement in the hours after the attack to reassure the Iraqi people that he was still alive and in control.
But such a message could certainly easily have been made and then relayed to the Iraqi state broadcasting authorities. And if Saddam was indeed still alive, it was clearly of the highest priority for him to do so. For the longer he stayed silent, the greater was the danger that his regime would rapidly disintegrate, as of course proved to be the case.
Further, a leader as narcissistic and egomaniacal as Saddam, who had always identified Iraq's fate as inextricably intertwined with his own personal destiny, would not have hesitated for a second to trumpet his achievement in escaping another failed U.S. attempt to kill him. Yet he did not do so. The argument from this silence is a very strong one.
Second, the Iraqi regime had showed remarkable resilience and -- in public at least -- confidence in the face of repeated U.S. precision-guided munitions strikes, and even as U.S. armored forces smashed into Baghdad itself. Yet within 24 hours after the fateful B1-B air strike on the restaurant in western Baghdad, it all fell apart. U.S. military and intelligence officials have reported that centralized command and control suddenly disintegrated. For the first time, they said, it appeared that no one was in charge in Iraq.
The Baath regime's centralized command and control was still working even in the face of looming defeat as recently as Sunday. Yet by Tuesday afternoon it was crumbling all around the country. Something else had changed beyond even the awesome power of the United States Army to effect such a transformation. What could it possibly have been?
Third, if Saddam did indeed escape the obliterated restaurant on Monday, where did he go? There has been no trace of him or his sons since then. Just as Hitler did indeed die in that Berlin bunker, decades of crackpot and tabloid scare stories to the contrary, the likelihood is that Saddam did, too. For if he did not, at least there should have been some indications of his flight, some record of a commandeered truce or aircraft, or eyewitnesses seeing him and his sons heading for the Syrian border or some Baath officials claiming they had at least talked to him by telephone. Yet instead, there has been nothing, nothing at all. This is an argument from silence, too.
Fourth, and most decisive of all, the 35-year spell of fear that Saddam and his Baath regime had cast upon Iraq evaporated Wednesday with crowds of people celebrating their freedom, streaming out on the streets of Baghdad.
It was ironic that this consummation was precisely the opposite of what Pentagon war planners had originally expected and based their strategies upon. But it was entirely in keeping with the dynamic of how rigid, long-lasting totalitarian regimes finally collapse in the face of military conquest or internal collapse.
As happened after the suicide of Adolf Hitler in his own subterranean bunker in the heart of Berlin in May 1945, or after Nicolae Ceausescu was arrested to be rapidly hauled up before a firing squad, hysterical, arrogant and defiant to the end, on Christmas Day 1989 or after Josef Stalin breathed his last -- possibly poisoned by his own veteran secret police chief Lavrenty Beria half a century ago in the spring of 1953, the change was felt immediately.
Alone among these examples, the Soviet system did not collapse with the death of Stalin, but the miasma of terror and fear disappeared almost immediately and the obsessive workings of a system geared to produce endless new purges, fake trials and the justification to slaughter, incarcerate and enslave millions more people ground to a halt immediately. None of Stalin's successors ever dared to start it up again.
In the cases of Hitler and Ceausescu, the transformations were even more obvious and dramatic. The fascinating, appalling spells that each of them had cast just by living disappeared as soon as they had drawn their last breath.
In a way, the clearest evidence -- instinctively and emotionally, if not factually -- that Saddam is already dead is in the unforgettable image of the toppling of his statue as crowds of people rejoiced happily around it and then even passed its severed head among themselves in an unselfconscious, compelling spontaneous celebration of their newly found freedom.
Saddam had dominated Iraq as its absolute ruler imposing diabolical terror and an obsessive cult of personality on his nation for 24 years -- nearly a quarter of a century. And he had been the No. 2 man and the real power in the Baath regime for 11 years before that. Suddenly, for the first time in 35 years, people in Iraq's capital felt free to smash his most cherished symbols and trample on his name.
Had Saddam escaped Monday's bombing, also in Baghdad, his regime would not have disintegrated so thoroughly.
Finally, therefore, the strongest evidence that Saddam is dead comes from the popular toppling of his statue -- as grim and monolithically unyielding as the man himself.
And indeed, in a profound way, whether Saddam was obliterated in the restaurant or still cowers in some subterranean bunker in Baghdad or Tikrit, the real moment when he died was when that statue toppled on Wednesday.
The hangman's noose which he so richly deserved above almost anybody who ever lived was finally thrown around the neck of the symbol that was as dear to him as life itself. And then it was pulled tight.
There should be some satisfaction among the families and friends of his more than million and a half victims at least for that.