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The Kuwaiti flag flew over the capital for the first time in six months Wednesday as machine gun-toting civilians took control of the city and allied forces encircled it.

Thousands of Kuwaitis emerged from hiding to stage euphoric celebrations in their war-ravaged capital.The celebration of freedom from Iraqi occupation began at first light, and by midday included children biking in the streets, past schools that had been converted to Iraqi barracks, couples strolling the shoreline holding hands and an endless staccato of machine gun fire into the skies.

Fewer than 100 Iraqis were said to be hiding by day's end, potential snipers being searched out by the armed civilians.

The exiled emir, Sheik Jaber al Sabah, planned to return to the city by week's end, perhaps as early as Thursday, Kuwaiti resistance leaders said.

In the interim, the civilian resistance was in loose control, setting up roadblocks to screen for any lingering Iraqis and monitor the return of Kuwaitis who fled after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion.

As Kuwaitis paraded throughout Kuwait City and the towns to the south, they ripped from walls pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. One elderly man spat at a Saddam poster before pulling it from a wall and setting it afire. Hours later, a poster showing Sheik Jaber walking alongside Crown Prince Saad Abdullah was in its place.

Even as they frolicked in the streets, at times climbing over abandoned Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft guns, Kuwaitis could not help but be reminded of the rebuilding to come, a project that surely will cost billions.

Scores of buildings were scarred by fire; many, including the capital's main electricity plant, still were burning or smoldering.

Roads were pocked with craters, and in many cases blocked by sand barriers constructed to protect Iraqi tanks.

A thick, at times choking, smoke wafted in the air, the ugly by-product of dozens of oil fires set by retreating Iraqis. The fires still burned, some sending bright orange flames more than 100 feet in the air.

``It's a catastrophe. It's indescribable,' said Fahd el Muhammed, a Kuwaiti who spent much of his day wandering along the waterfront, which had been off limits since days after the Iraqi invasion. ``The Iraqis are bastards.'

It did not take long before Kuwaiti flags, which resistance leaders said were enough to get a person shot just days ago, were hanging by the hundreds - on buildings and on cars.

As the Kuwaitis walked and drove the streets, they brought with them tales of hardship and tyranny, of living on little food and water and of dead or missing relatives.

Hyat al Fares, 25, said she was taken into custody for three weeks. Extending her swollen hands, her fingers black and blue and crusted with blood in places, Fares said she was forced to put her fingertips in an electric shock device every day.

Kuwaiti resistance leaders said several thousand Kuwaitis were taken hostage by the Iraqis when they retreated beginning Monday. And citizens accused the occupation army of rapes, thefts and destruction.

Kuwaitis waited throughout the day for the tens of thousands of troops around the city to enter in a triumphant parade. But most of the forces sat on the outskirts as the emirate and its capital were in effect liberated by the withdrawal of the Iraqis.

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