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Frontline Report: Baghdad Residents Cautiously Optimistic About Saddam's Demise - 2003-04-09

VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu went into central Baghdad with U.S. forces on Wednesday. She spoke from the Iraqi capital via satellite phone with VOA's Al Pessin in London.

Pessin: Alisha, I know you had a chance to go into western Baghdad with the Army units today. Tell us what that was like and what you saw.

Ryu: "Well, we are just on the border between the main center of town and the western sector. We are trying to move in a little bit closer to see, because we have been hearing a lot about this looting going on in certain parts of Baghdad and people celebrating. It seems as if people are now fairly convinced that Saddam Hussein has been toppled, if not killed.

And there is a sense of relief among some people here that this regime is finished, and they are hesitantly, and I say hesitantly because we have not seen that sort of mass kind of eruption of celebration out in the streets yet, but there seems to be some hesitant celebrations going on in different parts of town. I am going to try to get a little bit closer in. I am not sure how successful I will be because there are still some parts of town that are insecure.

The military is being very cautious about it, especially after yesterday's encounter where they received some fire from across the Tigris River where the 2nd Brigade's position is in the center of Baghdad. And so there is still some hesitancy among the military if you try to venture in too far."

Pessin: So even as we are hearing reports and, in fact, seeing pictures on television of celebrating, at least in some parts of the city, in other areas it is not secure and even some pockets of resistance remain?

Ryu: "Correct. The biggest worrisome part of Baghdad right now is the northeastern sector. That part has not been secured. The feeling is that the firefights that happened between the 2nd Brigade yesterday and the fire they were receiving from across the river actually came from a Shiite neighborhood in the northeast section. The thinking is that as the 2nd Brigade went into the center of Baghdad, a lot of the Fedayeen and the Special Republican Guard fled into that Shiite neighborhood across the river, and they are using that base to make sniper attacks and to unleash small arms fire on U.S. troops on the other side of the river. And so this is why the insecurities still exist on that side. Until that sector of town is secure, the military is still going to be very, very cautious on the ground."

Pessin: Alisha, although all the reports we are getting from Baghdad this morning indicate that the authority of Saddam Hussein's government has essentially faded away overnight. There do not seem to be any police visible in many parts, maybe all, of the city. The Information Ministry's staff appears to have disappeared from the Palestine Hotel where the journalists are staying, and yet we are also hearing from Central Command and from your report that the city is not secure, that this is not over. So if it is not over, what is next?

Ryu: "This will be an ongoing thing for at least a week, from what I am being told from the military commanders. They need to be absolutely certain that either Saddam Hussein is dead or he is gone, and if he is gone, they want to know where he left. Not only Saddam Hussein, but his two sons, so they are also on the top of the list. So until they are absolutely sure that the Saddam Hussein regime has been toppled and are gone, they are not going to be relaxed about anything. There is still that chance that he may be in touch with some of his commanders in the sort of Special Republican Guard or the Fedayeen, and, if so, there is always that chance that they could make trouble again.

Even if the city becomes calm, there is no guarantee that something else might not flare up within minutes or within hours or within days. So, with that in the back of their minds, until the whole city is sealed off and cordoned off and they do a sector by sector by sector search of the entire city to make sure that every part of the city is secure, they are not going to relax about this. But we are looking at another week of mop-up operations, and I think that there will still be quite a few hostile contacts in the days to come."

Pessin: In addition, there are several cities in the north of Iraq that have not yet been entered by allied forces, much less secured, including Saddam Hussein's hometown, Tikrit, where some people think, if he is still alive, he might make his last stand.

Ryu: "Absolutely. There is always the possibility that Saddam Hussein, if he is alive, has gone to his hometown of Tikrit in the north. U.S. military commanders here are already looking at Tikrit as the next stop. I asked about what could the resistance level there be, since that is very, very loyal to Saddam Hussein, and they said they are trying to assess that now. They are not sure what kind of a force he might have in there, but it is a large city, it is very loyal to Saddam Hussein, and it is another hurdle, if you will, for the U.S. forces and coalition forces because that will be the next key town that they must take if you are going to bring any kind of stability to Iraq as a whole."

Pessin: What is the next step for you today?

Ryu: " I am going to try to see if I can speak to some of the Iraqi civilians. I will do my best to try to get into those neighborhoods that are feeling more comfortable about the stability coming to Baghdad, and I want to get a little more of the civilian reaction to all of this. So I will try to get that information to you as soon as I can."