A column of coalition armored vehicles swooped unhindered into the heart of Baghdad, on the east bank of the Tigris, as U.S. commanders declared Saddam Hussein’s grip on the Iraqi capital is lost.

“The capital city is now one of those areas that has been added to the list of where the regime does not have control,” announced Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command in Qatar, three weeks to the day after war began in Iraq.

Marine drapes U.S. flag over Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussein shortly before its toppling

Television footage showed jubilant throngs of Iraqi citizens pouring into the streets in response to the tank presence.

Men waved their shirts, flashed thumbs-up signs, threw their arms around the soldiers and posed for pictures.

Hundreds gathered in a euphoric celebration in Firdos Square. Iraqi men immediately set to work trying to pull down a 25-foot bronze statue of Saddam Hussein with a sledgehammer and ropes.

Minutes later, scores cheered as U.S. forces joined in the effort, rigging the landmark sculpture to an M-88 tank.

In a spontaneous scene that could not have been scripted any better by Hollywood directors, the Saddam Hussein statue was toppled and a frenzied mob of citizens lunged at the symbol throwing shoes and garbage at it, then kicking and punching it as it crumbled to the ground.

After the head separated from the rest of the sculpture, a group of Iraqis began dragging it around the square.

The emotional scene was broadcast live on Arab television Al-Jazeera.

“This is liberation after 25 years. This is the best area [in Baghdad] but you don’t know what’s going on out there,” one citizen told Sky News correspondent David Chater.

Two young men held up a white sheet which bore the message, “Go home human shields.”

There has been no sign of any Iraqi officials and the minders assigned to cover the media failed to show up for work today.

Freed from the minders’ intervention, journalists scrambled to interview the Marines who appeared dazed at the sight of a downtown void of enemy forces. Most told Chater they had faced constant resistance from snipers along the route into the city. One soldier said they’d seen “a lot of scary moments.”

“It’s one day closer to coming back home,” another commented cautiously.

One stunned Marine shook his head in disbelief and asked, “Is this it?”

Another described how he’d felt every emotion over the last three weeks – from despair to elation – and had even “grieved for my own death.”

“It’s really an emotional time for me. The moment we’ve been waiting for is here,” said ABC News correspondent Richard Engel, reporting from the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel where journalists have been staying.

“I think we are at a degree of a tipping point where for the population there is a broader recognition that this regime is coming to an end and will not return in a way that it has been in the past,” Brooks told reporters back in Qatar.

But he warned that Saddam loyalists continue to fight in the north, including in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. The threat they pose includes the possible use of weapons of mass destruction.

Coalition airstrikes still target Republican Guard holdouts in Tikrit.

“There are still many days of perhaps fierce fighting to follow,” echoed Command spokesman Capt. Frank Thorp. “There are other areas of the country where we have yet to be at … We’re seeing good signs here, but I would definitely stay on the cautious side and say we still have more to come.”

Embedded journalists on the west side of Baghdad reported continued fighting, including an intense battle around Baghdad University.

“It’s still a combat situation. We have to stay on our toes,” said Thorp.

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