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White House urges caution at 'historic moment'

Fleischer: 'The war is not over'

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush, right, greets President Rudolf Schuster of the Slovak Republic in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday.
President Bush, right, greets President Rudolf Schuster of the Slovak Republic in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Three weeks into a war that divided Europe and raised questions at home, the Bush administration on Wednesday savored the images of jubilant Iraqis celebrating the crumbling of Saddam Hussein decades-long grip on power.

It was, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, a "historic moment."

Throughout the day, administration officials blended cautionary notes with their welcoming comments about the events transpiring in Iraq. There was, said some administration officials, a sense of vindication at the White House following weeks of questions about the progress of Operation Iraqi Freedom and continued criticism at home and abroad about the U.S.-led war.

That criticism of the war plan clearly rankled the administration. In New Orleans, Vice President Dick Cheney addressed a conference of newspaper editors and poked fun at "some retired military officers embedded in TV studios."

Said the vice president: "But with every day and every advance by our coalition forces, the wisdom of that plan becomes apparent."(Full story)

President Bush kept a low profile throughout the day, letting other administration figures take the lead in delivering the administration's message of cautious optimism.

Aides relayed word that Bush watched television coverage of the celebrations in the Baghdad streets, including the footage of a larger-than-life statue of Saddam being toppled in downtown Baghdad. "They got it down," Bush exclaimed, according to Fleischer.

Administration officials have said the brutality of Saddam's regime left the Iraqi people in fear and that is why they did not immediately welcome coalition forces with open arms. With Saddam losing ground, they said, that was changing.

Cheney heralded "evidence of the collapse of any central regime authority."

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, "The tide is turning" and highlighted what he called "a very good day."(Full story)

At the same time, administration officials took pains to emphasize that the military campaign continued. Battles raged, and resistance remained in Northern and Western Iraq.

"The war is not over," Fleischer said.

Rumsfeld was blunt: "There's a lot more fighting that's going to be done. More people are going to be killed, let there be no doubt. This is not over, despite all the celebrations on the street."

It was a fine line the administration walked. ''Freedom's taste is unquenchable," said Fleischer. "You're seeing what you see in mankind everywhere, given a chance to be free.''

But Fleischer said Bush wants to remind the American people this is a time of "utmost caution."

"There are many dangerous areas of Baghdad for our armed forces that remain, there are many other cities in Iraq that are dangerous ... where armed conflict could result," Fleischer said.

Remaining tasks

Rumsfeld outlined several remaining tasks: Capturing or accounting for Saddam and members of his senior leadership; securing oil fields in the North; rooting out terrorists within Iraq, finding U.S. prisoners of war; and locating and securing weapons of mass destruction; defeating all resistance.

Then there is the formidable task of reconstructing Iraq and forming a new government once the war is over.

A U.S.-led civilian authority will come into Baghdad once the city is secure and beginning running various government services, Rumsfeld said. Some of those ministries, such as agriculture, will be turned over to Iraqis, but security and other key responsibilities will remain in the hands of coalition forces. Eventually an Iraqi Interim Authority will take charge and that will be replaced by an elected Iraqi government, according to U.S. officials.

"The United States is not going to stay in that country and occupy it .... So we'll do our job, we'll do it well and we'll leave," Rumsfeld said.

Some members of the Bush administration have envisioned the end of the Iraqi regime as an impetus for the spread of democracy to other countries in the Middle East and as a way to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rumsfeld put it this way: "We are seeing history unfold, events that will shape the course of a country, the fate of a people and potentially the future of the region."

-- With reporting from CNN White House Correspondents Dana Bash and Chris Burns, and Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. .

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