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WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush stared at his television set and the image of Saddam Hussein's statue, torn from its pedestal and smashed to the ground. "They got it down," he said.
But the president was not ready to declare victory. At least not yet.
"The war is not over," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. But the cascade of developments in the heart of Iraq's capital hastened internal talks about when and how the president might declare victory.
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. A Marine tank ripped the statue from its pedestal and Iraqis dragged it through the streets, images Bush apparently missed because of meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, his national security team and the president of Slovakia.
After that last meeting, Bush saw the statue on the ground and continued watching for a few moments. according to an account of Bush's day provided by Fleischer.
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. While heartened by the day's events, Bush told aides too many things could still go wrong.
"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," Fleischer said.
There was some dispute over what it would take to declare the war over.
Fleischer said Bush would consider the ability of Iraqis to oversee civil affairs, and he would give great weight to the advice of his military advisers, including Rumsfeld.
The Pentagon chief gave reporters a long list of missions that need to be achieved "before victory can be declared," including finding Saddam, disarming the country and accounting for prisoners of war.
But senior White House officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is no check list that must be completed before war is declared over. The end could come before some of Rumsfeld's missions are achieved, particularly disarmament and possibly confirmation of Saddam's fate, and Bush may add chores that were not on Rumsfeld's list.
One official noted that the Taliban were routed and replaced but the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are unknown.
Bush had no public events Wednesday 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.
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.
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. There were no plans for a major address, but the president was likely to make some public appearance this week.
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.)