SAFWAN, Iraq - U.S. Marines hauled down giant street portraits of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites) in a screeching pop of metal and bolts Friday, telling nervous residents of this southern Iraqi town that "Saddam is done."
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Milling crowds of men and boys watched as the Marines attached ropes on the front of their Jeeps to one portrait and then backed up, peeling the Iraqi leader's black-and-white metal image off a frame. Some locals briefly joined Maj. David "Bull" Gurfein in a new cheer.
"Iraqis! Iraqis! Iraqis!" Gurfein yelled, pumping his fist in the air.
"We wanted to send a message that Saddam is done," said Gurfein, a New York native in the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "People are scared to show a lot of emotion. That's why we wanted to show them this time we're here, and Saddam is done."
The Marines arrived in Safwan, just across the Kuwait border, after Cobra attack helicopters, attack jets, tanks, 155 mm howitzers and sharpshooters cleared the way along Route 80, the main road into Iraq (news - web sites).
Safwan, 375 miles south of Baghdad, is a poor, dirty, wrecked town pocked by shrapnel from the last Gulf war (news - web sites). Iraqi forces in the area sporadically fired mortars and guns for hours Thursday and Friday. Most townspeople hid, although residents brought forth a wounded little girl, her palm bleeding after the new fighting. Another man said his wife was shot in the leg by the Americans.
A few men and boys ventured out, putting makeshift white flags on their pickup trucks or waving white T-shirts out truck windows.
"Americans very good," Ali Khemy said. "Iraq wants to be free."
Some chanted, "Ameriki! Ameriki!"
Many others in the starving town just patted their stomachs and raised their hands, begging for food.
A man identifying himself only as Abdullah welcomed the arrival of the U.S. troops: "Saddam Hussein is no good. Saddam Hussein a butcher."
An old woman shrouded in black — one of the very few women outside — knelt toward the feet of Americans, embracing an American woman. A younger man with her pulled her away, giving her a warning sign by sliding his finger across his throat.
In 1991, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died after prematurely celebrating what they believed was their liberation from Saddam after the Gulf War. Some even pulled down a few pictures of Saddam then — only to be killed by Iraqi forces.
Gurfein playfully traded pats with a disabled man and turned down a dinner invitation from townspeople.
"Friend, friend," he told them in Arabic learned in the first Gulf War.
"We stopped in Kuwait that time," he said. "We were all ready to come up there then, and we never did."
The townspeople seemed grateful this time.
"No Saddam Hussein!" one young man in headscarf told Gurfein. "Bush!"