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Wednesday, April 9

As Iraqis are liberated, Bush remains cautious

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - On a day of liberation and vindication, the Bush administration tried to tamp down immediate expectations in Iraq. But the long-term vision beginning to emerge Wednesday was a different story.

Watching live broadcasts of Iraqi men and American soldiers pull down a large statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, President Bush expressed "a measure of caution but also an expression of the power of freedom,'' White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.

While cautioning that ``there are difficult tasks ahead,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that he believed the "smiling faces'' of liberated Iraqis would ``counterbalance'' hatred of the United States in Arab countries that may have escalated during the war in Iraq.

"Truth finds its ways to people's ears and eyes and hearts, and I don't worry about that over the long term,'' Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing.

The White House's cautionary pose is a reflection of the challenges the United States and its allies will have in restoring order and making the transition to a new government in a suddenly lawless country. It's also recognition that the United States confronts widespread views in the Middle East that it invaded Iraq to enhance Israel's power, fight Islam and grab Iraq's rich oil wealth.

All three challenges could take months, if not years, to solve after the shooting stops.

But after a remarkable three weeks of war, the symbolism that began to emerge out of Iraq was initially reminiscent of the destruction of the Berlin Wall 14 years ago.

American troops and armored vehicles on Wednesday helped topple symbols of power in Baghdad. The world's TV screens were filled with Iraqis denouncing Saddam and praising Bush.

Burly men and young boys took turns hammering at a 40-foot Saddam statue in center-city Baghdad. After it came down with the help of an American armored vehicle, some men were shown parading the statue's head around the city.

And there was a hint of gloating from an administration hawk. Vice President Dick Cheney chided the "retired military officers embedded in TV studios" who had questioned the war's tactics.

Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in New Orleans, Cheney said the war would go down as "one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.''

But for the most part, the Bush administration tried to retain the focus on the Iraqi people and the challenges. Even Cheney said "vicious tactics" from a "regime's final breath" could make the coming days hard.

Saddam has long ruled with brutality and threat, under such illusion of popular support that his government announced he got 100 percent of the vote in an election last year. His image was literally everywhere in the country until Iraqis began stripping down pictures and toppling statues. So perhaps caution is also an apt tactic when such a regime undergoes sudden liberation.

Rather than multitudes of celebrants, roving bands of mostly men and young boys were shown applauding U.S. forces taking control of the center of Baghdad. Some Iraqi celebrants toted guns. Looting was widespread in many Iraqi cities.

But anticipating reticence from a people not accustomed to saying what was on their mind, Rumsfeld coaxed Iraqis to talk freely to western reporters now in the country. He urged them to act so that ``history properly tells the viciousness'' of Saddam's regime, and he promised there would no longer be retribution for telling the truth.

The whereabouts of Saddam and his inner circle is unknown. His power is gone, but some aspects of the conflict have barely started. One is a public relations battle to convince the Arab world that the United States came as liberators, not conquerors.

"There's no question but there's work to be done in that area,'' Cheney said. "...But I think in the final analysis, history will judge us and, hopefully, the people of the region will judge us based upon what happens next in Iraq'' toward a "viable, representative, democratic government.''