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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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Wednesday, April 9

Iraqi Americans celebrate apparent fall of Saddam regime

By Jennifer Brooks, Gregg Krupa | The Detroit News

DEARBORN, Mich. - As statues of Saddam Hussein swayed and toppled in Baghdad, jubilant Iraqis took to the streets of Dearborn for a celebration that mirrored the street parties in their homeland.

"This is the day we have been waiting for,'' Dearborn resident Hayder Il-Jafer exclaimed as he worked his way through the cheering, flag-waving crowds that overflowed the downtown sidewalks and spilled into the street. Dearborn police steered traffic around the spontaneous parade that wound through the streets all morning, afternoon and into the evening. "I'm so happy. I'm just - so happy. I can hardly tell you.''

The news from Baghdad hit like a bombshell in Metro Detroit, home to the nation's largest population of Iraqi Americans. Music blared and passing cars honked encouragement as an estimated 700 men, women and children sang, waved American and Iraqi flags and grabbed strangers into cheek-to-cheek hugs.

"For 30 years, Baghdad was the capital of a brutal regime,'' said Mike Hajjar of Dearborn. "Now, everything is given over, all at the same time. It is a historic moment for Iraqis.''

Il-Jafer added: "We want everyone to know that we thank the U.S., we thank President George W. Bush, we thank the people of the United States of America. It is just the freedom - just the freedom that there is there, now. I am so happy.''

Near the intersection of Warren and Schaefer, 50 men linked arms and shoulders, dancing in a circle and chanting in Arabic.

"Saddam! Saddam is dead!''

"God bless America!

"God bless Iraq!''

"They are asking each other if they believe what they have seen,'' said Ali Najar of Dearborn, translating some of the excited conversations in Arabic going on around him. "I think, maybe later, we'll stop pinching ourselves, you know? We dreamed and dreamed. Now, we have this.''

Many of Metro Detroit's Iraqis fled their homeland to escape persecution by the ruling regime. At one point during the street party, a large poster portrait of Saddam Hussein appeared in the middle of the crowd. Men took turns ripping it to pieces and stomping on the shreds, as they fell to the street.

'Peace has come'

Across the region, Iraqis rejoiced.

"Those tanks in Baghad don't look like tanks to me. They look like the white doves. Because they bring the peace,'' said Fasseh Asfar, tears streaming down his face. Asfar, an artist, fled Iraq 10 years ago. "I left every, everything to come here because I wanted to live with the peace. Now I feel what this means is the peace has come to Iraq.''

For Nimat Aziz of Troy, the sight of the huge statue of Saddam toppling to the ground to be kicked and pummeled by Baghdad crowds was more than enough reason to take his family out to celebrate.

"He put, in every corner of every city, his picture, his statues. And those statues, you don't know, cost $200,000. And whenever it's damaged or scratched, it's torn down and replaced. This while his people are starving.''

Earlier in the morning, a crowd of about 100 people, accompanied by honking cars, paraded by the Karbalaa Islamic Center in Dearborn.

'We are very happy'

Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, the celebrations were more muted but no less joyful among the large Iraqi Christian population.

In Oak Park, champagne corks popped as members of Iraqi Chaldean opposition groups toasted what they hope is the beginning of the end of the regime they have been working against since 1968.

"I always said, before I die, I would like to see Iraq liberated,'' said Ghazi Shaffo, lead writer for Al-Muntada magazine, who has not been back to Iraq since he fled three decades ago. "We are very happy. We are celebrating now. We've got the champagne.''

Shouting to make himself heard over the party crowd, Eddie Bacall of Farmington Hills voiced the nagging concerns of many Chaldeans, who make up 3 percent of the Iraqi population.

"People are asking, 'How come we don't see Chaldeans dancing in the streets?' We are happy, very happy, but there is some concern. We are still a minority there,'' he said. "We are very pleased we got rid of this dictator. We hope there won't be any other dictators to come.''

Like dozens of other Iraqi exiles, Bacall said he is ready to return to his homeland - for a while at least - to help rebuild the country's shattered economy and infrastructure.

"When the economy is poor and the country is not doing good, the terrorists and the religious extremists appeal to the poor.''

Waiting for word

The celebrations also were dampened by concern for relatives in Baghdad. The phones to the city have not worked in days, and worried relatives have been unable to check in with their families.

But Mike Hajjar, who fled Iraq several years ago and who has been out of touch with his relatives since the worst fighting began, said liberating his country was more important right now than anyone's personal safety.

"Do not worry,'' he said. "Do not worry about a family, or about the American soldiers who are still there. It will all be all right, now. We can see. Do not worry. The regime is dead now. The Baath Party is dead now.''

Fasseh Asfar has not heard from his sisters - two in Baghdad, one in Mosul - since the worst of the fighting began. If they have been hurt or worse, he says, it will comfort him to think that it was a sacrifice for a greater good.

'If my sisters or nephews are lost, it will be as if they have crucified themselves so that others may live,'' he said.

Saad Marouf, chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America, was waiting anxiously for word on the fate of the estimated 50,000 Chaldeans who live in Baghdad, including his brother-in-law. For a while, the phones still worked in the distant Baghdad suburbs, but there has been no phone contact with the city since Sunday.

"We are very much concerned,'' he said. But like everyone else, he watched the images on television. "I think this is the first test of freedom for the Iraqi people in the past 30 years.''