WASHINGTON – The White House reacted with caution as a huge statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in the center of Baghdad, warning “the war is not over.''
Between meetings, President Bush watched television sporadically as Iraqi citizens reacted with jubilation, especially as a symbol of the Iraqi regime – the 40-foot statue – was pulled down by Iraqis with the help of U.S. Marines. “They got it down,'' Mr. Bush reportedly said with evident pleasure, even joy.
It was sweet vindication for the President who defied many of America's traditional allies to go to war against the regime that defied his father, then-President George H.W. Bush, in 1990 by invading Kuwait and threatening Saudi Arabia.
The White House was clearly concerned yesterday about what comes next.
There are major worries about the continued pockets of resistance from Iraqi soldiers, in Tirkrit and Kirkut and the problem of how to keep order in Iraq without being hated as an occupying force.
The administration is still speculating about whether Saddam Hussein escaped Monday's bombing and what happened to the weapons of mass destruction Mr. Bush used to justify the war. There also is some concern that oil fields in northern Iraq could be set afire and that terrorist networks could regroup.
There seemed to be little anxiety in the White House or the Pentagon that there might be adverse diplomatic repercussions because of the Marine who draped a U.S. flag and then an Iraqi flag over the statue of Saddam before the statue was felled. Officials chalked it up to the justifiable exuberance of a soldier.
Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman, said that although yesterday was “an important day for the people of Iraq” he could give no indication of when Bush might speak to the nation to declare victory because the war has not ended.
Mr. Bush spent most of his day meeting with his intelligence staff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his national security team. He avoided the usual custom of having a photo opportunity open to reporters' questions when he met with Rudolf Schuster, president of Slovakia, for the second time in nine months. The White House left it to Mr. Schuster to talk to the press about the meeting.
Asked for his sense of the President's mood, Mr. Schuster, who told Mr. Bush his country would provide mine-clearing equipment in Iraq after the war, said in Slovak, “The atmosphere was very positive. Victory is drawing closer; the campaign is nearing its end.''
In 1989, when Mr. Bush's father was president, he was widely criticized for not reacting with more passion and emotion on the day the Berlin Wall fell. Asked yesterday if it is a Bush family trait to react cautiously on historic days, Mr. Fleischer said:
“What you have to keep in mind about what you've seen today is today is a momentous day for freedom in Iraq; it is a day when a statue fell and was dragged through the streets in a powerful expression of freedom by the Iraqi people. And it fell in the middle of a shooting war. And we remain in the middle of a shooting war.''
Mr. Fleischer added, “The President looks forward to speaking out. The President is filled with joy for the fact that the Iraqi people will soon be free. And I assure you this President, as he has done repeatedly throughout this, will speak out. But I urge you just to keep today in context.''
In some parts of Iraq, he said, people already are free. In some areas, there is still fear that Saddam's forces could exact retribution against perceived traitors. The wary note of optimism was voiced throughout the administration.
In New Orleans Vice President Cheney told a gathering of newspaper editors the nation must not forget those who have died in the war, that American troops conducted themselves with integrity and skill, and that so far a large-scale humanitarian crisis in Iraq has been avoided.
But, he warned, “there well may be hard fighting yet ahead.''
Mr. Cheney added, “Until this war is fully won, we cannot be overconfident in our position and we must not underestimate the desperation of whatever forces remain loyal to the dictator.
“We know full well the nature of the enemy we're dealing with. Servants of the regime have used hospitals, schools, and mosques for military operations. They've tortured and executed prisoners of war. They've forced women and children to serve as human shields. They've transported death squads in ambulances, fought in civilian clothes, feigned surrender and opened fire on our forces, and shot civilians who welcomed coalition troops.
At the Pentagon Mr. Rumsfeld repeated the administration's mantra. “There are going to be some very tough times ahead.''
But he also said the loved ones of those who died and family members of soldiers still in Iraq should watch “these historic scenes unfold” and take “enormous pride in the actions'' of the soldiers.
“The Iraqi people are understandably elated at the prospect of life without Saddam Hussein,'' Mr. Rumsfeld said.
“We said from the beginning that he was finished. Now they are daring to believe it.
“This,” he said, “is a very good day.''