LONDON, April 9 (UPI) -- The tipping point long anticipated by President George W. Bush may have finally been achieved Wednesday morning as thousands of jubilant Iraqis took to the streets to mark the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein's 24-year tyrannical rule of terror.
This is the "Kabul moment" that Bush and his generals have long been looking forward to. This is the moment that will justify the invasion of Iraq in the eyes of its planners.
Since the opening hours of the war in Iraq, the coalition was expecting and hoping for mass popular uprising by the Iraqi population that would greet American and British troops with flowers and cheers instead of bullets and bombs. But this magic moment of public jubilation was 21 days late in manifesting itself, forcing British and American troops to battle their way over a period of three weeks from Basra to Baghdad.
Still, 21 days is a relatively short time to conquer a country the size of Iraq. Now the coalition will need to conquer their hearts and minds, and this battle might prove somewhat more difficult. Iraqis, like most people, have always been wary of foreign invaders -- be they liberators or conquerors.
Such was the fear instilled by Saddam's secret police -- the dreaded Mukhabarat -- that it took the presence of American tanks and Marines in the center of the capital to convince the residents of Baghdad that Saddam's power base was truly on its way out. Finally, the tipping point had come.
Jubilation by large crowds could be seen in parts of east Baghdad, in the area known as Saddam City and inhabited mostly by Shiite Muslims, where residents could be seen dancing in the streets, raising their hands, making "V" for victory signs.
In acts reminiscent of the downfall of communism when Russians took to the streets removing statues of Lenin, statues of Saddam in Baghdad were attacked by crowds and toppled. The tipping moment had finally come.
In other parts of the capital, residents looted government buildings, tearing down portraits of Saddam. Television images showed Iraqis hitting pictures of Saddam with their shoes, and spitting at the pictures of the one-time all-powerful dictator. Only a day earlier such conduct would have been punishable by death. Another tipping moment.
Hundreds of Baghdad residents rushed into vacated government buildings, offices and palaces to remove everything they could carry, from chairs and refrigerators to flower vases.
As the Marines consolidated their positions in central Baghdad, there were no reports on the whereabouts of Saddam, his two sons Uday and Qusay, nor any of the Baath high command. U.S. officials were still checking the wreckage of a bombed-out building that was attacked earlier in the week after reports that Saddam was in the structure.
British intelligence sources say they believe Saddam escaped the attack by mere minutes. According to the London Times, "MI6 told the CIA that it believes Saddam left the building in Baghdad's al-Mansour district just before four U.S. 2,000-pound bunker-buster bombs reduced it to rubble."
In another indication that Saddam's regime was crumbling, for the first time since the start of the war three weeks ago, Information Minister Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf failed to show up Wednesday morning for his usual media briefing at the Palestine Hotel, where foreign correspondents are based.
Only a day earlier, al-Sahhaf told the international press gathered at the Palestine Hotel "not to be afraid," and that the "enemy would be defeated."
In what will undoubtedly become the catch phrase of the war, Iraq's indefatigable information minister persisted in claiming that "the infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad" -- as American troops were just a grenade's throw from the hotel where he defiantly stood briefing the press.
But that was before the tipping point. The "infidels" have moved inside the gates and by the looks of it are certainly not committing suicide.
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)