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(White House-AP) -- President Bush thinks today's toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in downtown Baghdad demonstrates "the power of freedom."
That's according to spokesman Ari Fleischer, who says the president didn't see the moment on live T-V, but was watching both before and after as he talked to aides outside the Oval Office.
But Bush was not ready to declare victory. At least not yet.
"As much as the president is pleased to see the progress of the military campaign and the Iraqi people finding freedom where they're finding it, he remains very cautious because he knows there is great danger that could still lie ahead," spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
From a room near the Oval Office, Bush watched the Iraqi attempts to topple the statue of Saddam and was told that a U.S. vehicle had arrived on the scene, Fleischer said. A Marine tank ripped the statue from its pedestal and Iraqis dragged it through the streets.
Meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, his national security team and the president of Slovakia apparently kept Bush away from the TV when the statue fell.
After that last meeting, Bush saw the statue on the ground and continued watching for a few moments, according to Fleischer.
The cascade of developments in the heart of Iraq's capital hastened internal talks about when and how Bush might declare victory and implement long-debated postwar plans.
Some White House aides privately predicted the war's end was near, even as they warned that parts of Iraq were not under U.S. control, including Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
Bush had no public appearances planned, and aides said he would probably keep a low profile while his war council tried to digest the events. Mindful of stiff anti-war sentiments in the Arab world and among allies, Bush did not want to say or do anything that could be interpreted as bravado, aides said.
For the time being, the White House message will continue to be a mix of optimism and caution though aides acknowledged Bush may soon have to put the developments in context. They said the progress on the ground could hasten the creation of an interim authority in Iraq.
The aides also said Bush reminded his staff he didn't want to hear any bragging from his administration. That didn't stop Vice President Dick Cheney and other advisers from claiming vindication for oft-criticized military plans.
"With every day, with every advance of our coalition forces, the wisdom of that plan becomes more apparent," Cheney told newspaper editors in New Orleans.
He called the war "one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted."
In Washington, the president's spokesman also reveled in Wednesday's developments.
"Freedom's taste is unquenchable," Fleischer said after he was asked about the president's reaction to television coverage of Iraqis dancing, looting and cheering U.S. convoys.
Fleischer also took a jab at France, Germany and Russia on the eve of a meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, among allies who opposed Bush's push for war. In remarks in Paris on Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac said the United Nations alone should be responsible for administering Iraq's reconstruction and government.
"I would hope that rather than focus on what the U.N. alone should have as a role in (rebuilding Iraq), it would be nice if these people would talk about ... the Iraqi people first," Fleischer said. "That would be a nice message to hear from Moscow, a statement about the Iraqi people first."
Bush has said the U.N. should play a "vital role" in rebuilding Iraq, but he has suggested its participation should be strictly limited to humanitarian assistance, fund raising and making suggestions about the makeup of the interim authority. Administration officials have insisted that the U.S.-led military coalition should take the lead in postwar Iraq.
"We don't believe that the United Nations is equipped to play that central role," Cheney told the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)