Call was what president had long been awaiting

Bush learned of possible capture Saturday

news to give political boost

The Capture Of Saddam Hussein

December 15, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The call came to President Bush about 3:15 on a chilly Saturday afternoon at Camp David. On the other line was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who began the conversation with a word of caution that first reports do not always turn out to be accurate.

Bush cut him off. "This sounds like it is going to be good news," an eager president said.

It was. Rumsfeld informed him that U.S. military officials in Iraq were confident, if not yet certain, that they had finally caught Saddam Hussein.

"Well," the president replied, "that is good news."

Indeed, for Bush, the capture of Hussein delivered an extraordinary personal and political boost. For months, the president has been battered by grim reports from Iraq, where disarray and violence against U.S. troops have diminished public confidence in him and emboldened his Democratic rivals. Now, the pre-eminent symbol of defiance toward the U.S. occupation - Saddam Hussein - had been discovered and seized.

This was a phone call the president had been waiting for.

The White House yesterday was a place with a relaxed feel, even an air of triumph, though officials took care not to gloat. Officials who trekked through snow and freezing rain to work on a Sunday bantered and seemed at ease.

In a speech at 12:15 p.m., Bush was terse and solemn. Yet the outlines of a small smile surfaced at times in his remarks.

"I have a message for the Iraqi people," he said. "You will not have to fear the rule of Saddam Hussein ever again. All Iraqis who take the side of freedom have taken the winning side.

"In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over," he said. "All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq."

Recounting how the president had been kept aware of the unfolding developments, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that in his conversation Saturday afternoon with Rumsfeld, Bush asked whether the man seized might be an impostor. Hussein was known to have look-alikes. Bush asked Rumsfeld why military officials were so confident it was Hussein.

Rumsfeld went off to gather more details and called Bush back later that afternoon. Telltale identifying marks, the defense secretary told the president, were found on Hussein.

Bush got on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney and then with his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. On Saturday night, he took a helicopter to the White House, arriving on the South Lawn, waving and saluting as he disappeared into the presidential mansion, offering no clue about what he knew.

At 5:14 a.m. yesterday, Rice phoned the president as he was getting out of bed. She told him that U.S. officials in Iraq were now sure they had captured the right man. "That was essentially confirmation that we got Saddam Hussein," McClellan told reporters in his West Wing office early yesterday.

The president was scheduled to attend Sunday church services. Instead, he spent about two hours in the Oval Office, calling foreign leaders and top members of Congress to inform them of Hussein's capture.

About 10 a.m., he returned to the White House residence, changed from a sport coat into a suit, then walked back to the Cabinet Room in the West Wing to deliver a three-minute speech that may be remembered as among the most momentous of his presidency.

In recent months, as his administration has been pounded by criticism that it failed to plan properly for the postwar situation, the president has had little or no news from Iraq to celebrate. For critics, the handiest proof of U.S. ineptitude was the inability of U.S. forces to find the former Iraqi dictator in a country they are supposed to control.

It is far from clear that Hussein's capture will end, or even calm, the violent insurgency confronting U.S. troops. But at home, at least, it is a stunning victory that began playing yesterday to the president's political benefit. His Democratic rivals in next year's election, having ridiculed and denounced Bush's handling of Iraq, this time celebrated with him.

As of late summer, a sputtering domestic economy and the widening perception that the military effort in Iraq was ill-planned were seen as Bush's main obstacles to re-election. A resurgent economy has appeared to give Bush a political boost recently. Hussein's capture may well do the same, at least in the short term.

Bush has seldom spoken of a personal stake in whether the Iraqi leader was caught. Yet Hussein's success in clinging to power after the 1991 Persian Gulf war brought criticism of Bush's father for not trying harder to topple him. A few years later, according to some accounts, Hussein tried to have the elder Bush assassinated when he was on a trip to Kuwait, escorted by the younger Bush's mother and wife.

A year ago, at a Texas fund-raiser, Bush broke from his usual silence on this matter, pointedly calling Hussein "a guy that tried to kill my dad."

When asked in the past about the importance of seizing Hussein, Bush has always been circumspect, vowing to find the Iraqi leader but never portraying it as a barometer of whether the war was a success.

Yesterday morning, the president spoke with about a dozen foreign and congressional leaders, including Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, whose decision to stand firmly with Bush and send troops to Iraq hurt his own standing at home. According to McClellan, Bush watched the early-morning news briefing in Iraq, during which Hussein's capture was announced.

"The president was particularly moved to see the outburst of joy," McClellan said, "from the Iraqis during the briefing - the Iraqi journalists."

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