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Anniversary of Fall of Baghdad Passes Almost Unnoticed - 2004-04-09

With fierce battles being waged by insurgents in numerous Iraqi cities, the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to coalition forces is passing almost unnoticed. VOA Middle East Correspondent Greg LaMotte in Cairo reviews what happened in Baghdad a year ago, and how the scene has changed.

One year ago, the world watched as Iraqis, with the help of U.S. soldiers, toppled a statue of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad, as the capital fell to coalition forces.

On April 9, 2003, nearly every Saddam statue in Baghdad was destroyed by liberated Iraqis.

In the capital that day, thousands of Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate. Others looted and burned government buildings associated with the former regime.

CNN television technician Gerard Kane was in downtown Baghdad when the liberation happened.

"When I drove through the streets, there was a lot of cheering people out on the streets, and it seemed like spirits were pretty high, and people were pretty hopeful and optimistic," he said.

But Mr. Kane says celebrations soon turned violent.

"Buildings were on fire, and people were all armed, and they were just taking whatever they could get their hands on," he said. "So, that was probably the most dangerous time of the war for me. It was anarchy, and that's the worst situation to be in, where just anything can happen. You had maybe two or three hours of people cheering, as we literally drove into downtown Baghdad. But that vanished rapidly, and then the looting and burning and the craziness started."

Some Iraqis took advantage of the situation, carrying out robberies and revenge killings against fellow Iraqis. The murder rate in the capital jumped to 20 times its average, just days after coalition troops took control of the capital.

It had been expected that Iraqi soldiers would stage a fierce effort to maintain control of Baghdad. But that didn't happen. Many people in the Arab world were shocked at how fast Baghdad fell. But not the head of the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi.

"More pleasantly surprised than really shocked. You know, certainly, back then, you could see there was some prospect that you'll have this transition to a democracy," he said. "But, basically, what we are seeing now is the whole country seems to be in chaos, and that basically makes one put into perspective all the previous joy that one had."

Now, a year after Baghdad fell, there have been improvements in public services, new Iraqi security forces are being trained and deployed, and the transition to Iraqi sovereignty has begun with a June 30 handover date set.

But during the past week, a dispute between the coalition and a popular Shi'ite cleric has sparked a new insurgency south and east of Baghdad. Some of the foreign civilian contractors involved in trying to restore Iraqi public services have been targeted by the insurgents.

At the same time, pro-Saddam Hussein forces have taken advantage of the Shi'ite unrest to launch their own new offensive west of the capital. The result has been some of the fiercest fighting since the coalition consolidated control in Iraq last year.

The spokesman for the 22-member Arab League, Hossam Zaki, says the situation today in Baghdad is far different from one year ago, but has not improved as much as people had hoped.

"I would say that this war that happened a year ago and culminated in the fall of the regime on April 9, has been a major earthquake for the region," he said. "But, the situation in Iraq itself, which has witnessed this war, has not improved in the way that people were hoping they would improve."

In spite of the problems in Iraq, and the new wave of violence, senior U.S. officials, including President Bush, have said they will not change the plan to hand sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government on June 30. That government will be responsible for organizing elections within about six months. But coalition military forces are expected to remain in Iraq, at least until the elections are held, to try to restore order and make it possible for Iraqis to take full control of their lives and their futures.