Jubilant Kuwaitis honked horns, shouted thanks and waved their national flag during the first day of freedom from nearly seven months of Iraqi occupation.

Nowhere was the joy more evident Wednesday than outside the U.S. Embassy where a stream of cars festooned with the Kuwaiti flag drove by and a crowd of men, women and children gathered to toss flowers, candy and offer thanks to U.S. Marines who retook the compound in Kuwait's capital Tuesday night."The American flag was flying" over the embassy when Marines arrived, said Lt. Brian Knowles, 25, of Chesapeake, Va., who led the team that recaptured the embassy. "All we did was confirm the fact."

The flag that flew, Knowles said, was the same one raised and left by the U.S. ambassador when he departed Kuwait. The Iraqis did not touch it or the embassy.

The abandoned U.S. Embassy was reclaimed by 12 Marines.

"One platoon came in, did the job, and we had tea brewing before anyone else was up," said Staff Sgt. Edmond Maziarski, 28, of New York.

"U.S. embassies are guarded by Marines," he said. "We wanted Marines to be the first ones to take it back."

At the embassy, 40 Iraqi prisoners of war were turned over to the Marines by the Kuwaitis. They were sitting with handcuffs, awaiting transfer into Saudi custody.

While Kuwait City residents celebrated freedom in some places, Marines manned front-line positions, Saudi and Kuwaiti tanks and troops raced into the city, and the sound of machine guns and mortar fire could be heard, suggesting Iraq's army was down but not fully out of Kuwait.

The route into the capital was littered with the wrecks of cars and trucks - stripped of tires, windows, engines and anything usable or movable the Iraqis wanted.

Buildings along the route into the city were burned out, vandalized or destroyed by the firefight Iraq's army began with the invasion.

The downtown hotel section and the waterfront of this gulf coastal city were a shambles. Hotels were gutted and burned, their windows broken, and the debris of cars and buildings littered the streets.

Commercial fishing boats wantonly sank sat useless in the harbor.

Kuwait City was pitch black Wednesday night. It was without electricity - the Iraqi army destroyed the power plant before retreating.

Highways leading to and surrounding the capital showed the fierce fighting that was required to begin the city's liberation. The wrecks of Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and jeeps were strewn along freeways, either abandoned by their troops or blasted into uselessness by allied guns.

At one checkpoint, where U.S. M-1A1 Abrams tanks and Marine amphibious assault vehicles bulked behind the trees and shrubs, Marines hunkered down behind the concrete median strip as gunfire rang out across the road.

"You're in Indian country," quipped one Marine officer who asked not to be named.

But much of the Iraqi force had surrendered or retreated long before the Marines reached the city. Except for one brief tank battle in which a dozen Iraqi vehicles were destroyed, there appeared to be little organized resistance.

Troops of the 1st Marine Division captured Kuwait International Airport after a brief firefight early Wednesday and apparently ended all organized Iraqi resistance in Kuwait City.

The 1st Marine Division fought all or part of seven Iraqi infantry, armored and mechanized infantry divisions during its advance from the southwest "heel" of Kuwait to the capital city.

Sgt. Mark McDonnell, commander of a light armored vehicle, said 34 Iraqis surrendered to his unit shortly after the Marines rolled into the western suburbs Tuesday night.

"There was a lot of white flags. They were in pretty bad shape. One guy didn't have any boots, just rags on his feet," said McDonnell, 32, of Columbia, Mo.

He said Kuwaiti citizens poured out of their homes waving and cheering as the Marine armored vehicles rolled into attack positions.

"I was pretty surprised to see them riding around on the roads, hanging out of their cars, while there was an attack on," he said.