President Saddam Hussein was nowhere in sight, his dreaded Fedayeen militia melted away. And with wheelbarrows and donkey carts, with battered pickup trucks and with their own elbow grease, thousands of Iraqis decided it was time to go shopping.
"They're just looting everything," said U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. John Kelley, 29, under fresh instructions to help stop the chaos.
"When I came down here earlier, I said, `They're taking everything but the kitchen sink,"' he said. That very moment, he looked around and saw a man carrying just that: "Ah," Kelley said, "he's got a sink."
Looting often follows the fall of governments. The motivations are myriad — pent-up energy, anger at the departing regime, simple greed. And so it went in Baghdad.
"They are the people who lived beneath the thumb of Saddam Hussein for decades. For them, it is not looting -- it is liberty," reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts from Baghdad. "Life's pleasures that once belonged exclusively to Saddam's Baath Party, now belongs to them,"
Since Saddam's forces quit key positions and the U.S. military overran the capital Wednesday, Baghdad residents have streamed from their homes to scour the streets and suck up all in their path — from small souvenirs to heavy armoires to live horses.
On Thursday morning, Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, a commanding officer for the U.S. Marines, told his officers at a meeting to try to quell looting.
Eager Iraqis proved overwhelming, however.
"There's so much. How do you stop it?" Belcher said. "I'm a security force. I can fight, I can keep the peace. But police work is not our forte."
It's not just Baghdad. Residents of Basra, in southern Iraq, have ranged through their city since Monday, cleaning out — among dozens of other locations — every room of the local Sheraton Hotel.
In the north, looters swarmed the oil city of Kirkuk after Kurdish guerrilla fighters entered the city Wednesday and Saddam's Baath Party loyalists fled. Kurdish residents targeted government sites, cleaning out the post office, stealing reinforced safes and bashing at them with hammers in the streets.
Several Kurdish leaders claimed Baath officials' freshly abandoned homes, posting guards and taking up residence. Kirkuk's stores, largely Kurdish-owned, were left untouched.
Some of the items looted seemed inexplicable — the unwieldy prizes of people who simply wanted to claim something, anything, from the disorder.
One boy in ripped rubber boots dragged a dilapidated electric ceiling fan, blade over his shoulder, down a Baghdad street. A man driving a small Volkswagen pointed to his catch — an obviously broken industrial air conditioner protruding from the tiny trunk.
A group of men sat in the median of a boulevard, guarding a pile of cushioned office chairs. One man carried a mattress on his back; another scampered along with an armload of fluorescent light bulbs. A particularly industrious participant rigged his donkey cart with a looted chair, perched atop it and drove his rickety load along.
Omar Amir ended the day with a new mattress, poached from a government office. "I need one. I don't have one," he said, smiling broadly.
Some shot toothy grins at U.S. forces, putting down their prizes for a thumbs-up or a quick finger across the throat and a whispered word — "Saddam" — before grabbing their loot and vanishing.
Elsewhere in the capital, a throng trying to open a bank vault decided bullets were the best approach. They opened fire with a rifle, sending ricochet fire everywhere. U.S. forces intervened and told them to go home.
Near Iraq's Interior Ministry, hundreds swarmed into a hospital to strip it of equipment. And across from the ministry, in a police academy compound, U.S. forces kept looters from a munitions dump brimming with Kalashnikovs, crates of mortars and grenades and scores of boxes of knives and pistols.
U.S. Lance Cpl. Darren Pickard said he stopped one looter trying to spirit a Kalashnikov rifle out of the compound. He confiscated it and let the man go.
"There just aren't enough of us to clear it out," Pickard said.
Others took televisions, refrigerators, blankets and bedrolls. One man gleefully wheeled a booty-laden cart toward the gate, past an enormous picture of a rifle-wielding Saddam.
"If we weren't here, they'd probably take the chain-link fence and the grass," said U.S. Marine Capt. Lyle McDaniel, 34, guarding a stadium complex.
One woman, too frightened to give her name, said she hoped the U.S. troops would restore security and stop the looting.
"We have all been surprised by the chaos," she said in English. "Everything is out of control. We can't sleep because we are afraid of being attacked by our own people."
Kelley, the sergeant, watched the civil disorder and marveled: "They're doing more damage to their own country than we did."