Bush lets pictures speak for themselves

Wary White House tone belies sense of vindication at Iraq regime's fast fall

War In Iraq

April 10, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Just after returning from a meeting with the president of Slovakia yesterday, President Bush stared at a television set near the Oval Office and saw the image:

A towering statue of Saddam Hussein, toppled and broken into chunks on the ground in a central Baghdad square.

"They got it down," a satisfied president said.

Determined to avoid any semblance of gloating, Bush made no public comments on the day that Baghdad's regime fell to U.S.-led forces. White House aides stressed it was not time to declare victory in the 3-week-old war, and bloody fighting could still occur in pockets of Baghdad and elsewhere.

At the same time, the president seemed pleased to allow the pictures of jubilation and relief that greeted the collapse of Hussein's regime to stand on their own. The day's events, as much as anything Bush could put to words, drove home his argument that the war would liberate an oppressed people.

"The images do speak for themselves," one senior White House aide said.

If the official line was to urge caution and to refrain from celebrating, it was clear that White House officials felt some vindication. Swift military successes in recent days, and now the takeover of Baghdad to cheers from Iraqi civilians, have begun to silence some of the president's critics.

Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, took a swipe at Russia, France and Germany, three nations that vehemently opposed military action in Iraq. Those countries are now calling for the United Nations to play a central role in rebuilding Iraq and creating a new government. Bush wants a U.S.-led coalition to take the lead role.

"Rather than focus on that the U.N. alone should have a role, it would be nice if these nations talked about, instead of the U.N. alone, the Iraqi people first," Fleischer said. "This is about the Iraqi people first. And that would be a nice message to hear from Moscow."

Vice President Dick Cheney said in a speech in New Orleans that success in Iraq should persuade U.S. allies to back any efforts to remove regimes that possess dangerous weapons.

"Friends of the United States - throughout the world and in the Middle East - will be deeply heartened by this victory," Cheney said, "and will prove far more willing to stand up to the tyrants and terrorists in their midst."

The vice president also disparaged the recent comments of some former military officers. Some had called into question the war strategy at a time when U.S. forces seemed stalled by fiercer-than-expected Iraqi resistance and TV images of dead or imprisoned U.S. soldiers were being beamed back to America.

"In the early days of the war, the plan was criticized by some retired military officers embedded in TV studios," Cheney said. "With every day, and every advance, by our coalition forces, the wisdom of that plan becomes more apparent."

The mood transformation at the White House has been stark.

Two weeks ago at Camp David, Bush was confronted with pointed questions about why the war effort had run up against such stiff resistance from Iraqi forces and about how long the conflict would last.

A president who likes speaking in sweeping, moralistic terms about good and evil and victory and defeat appeared uncomfortable at Camp David talking about a war that had grown complicated. Bush spoke less than he usually does, leaving to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, who spoke alongside him, more of the task of articulating the justifications for the U.S.-led invasion.

In contrast, with the war going well, Bush seemed to have his swagger back when he appeared with Blair on Tuesday in Northern Ireland.

It was the British prime minister who was at one point deferential to Bush. After the president had responded to a question, Blair smiled and said, "I agree with all that."

Bush took aim at any allies that doubted his conviction: "Evidently, there's some skepticism here in Europe about whether or not I mean what I say. Saddam Hussein clearly knows I mean what I say."

After appearing at times weary and frustrated when the war was being criticized, Bush's advisers have this week exuded confidence. As Bush spoke alongside Blair on Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, sat listening to Bush, all smiles.

Analysts called the fall of Hussein's statue and the dancing in the streets of Baghdad a pivotal moment in Bush's presidency. The president has invested enormous political capital in a war that will go far to define his term in office.

Yet key challenges lie ahead for Bush. There is still no proof that Hussein has been killed, and if the Iraqi president suddenly emerged in public again, it would undercut Bush's ability to declare a clear victory.

As U.S. forces remain to help rebuild Iraq, Bush must counter any perception that the United States plans a long occupation of a country in a region where anti-Americanism is fierce.

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