Bush mum on fall of Baghdad

President Bush maintained a low profile Wednesday as the world watched televised images of jubilant Iraqis cheering the apparent end of Saddam Hussein’s reign. The White House, while clearly pleased, emphasized caution.

Bush did not appear publicly except for a photo session with the president of the Slovak Republic, where he made no comment. His only words for the public about the momentous events he engineered were reported second-hand:

“They got it down,” Bush said as he watched a crowd in Baghdad celebrate the ruin of a statue of Saddam, according to a spokesman. While the moment was historic, the president was aware that “there is great danger that could still lie ahead,” spokesman Ari Fleischer said.

Vice President Cheney, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in New Orleans, came closer to crowing; he termed what U.S. forces have done in Iraq “one of the most extraordinary military campaigns ever conducted.”

Cheney also took the occasion to reject once-popular criticism of the war plan.

“With every day, with every advance of our coalition forces, the wisdom of that plan becomes more apparent,” Cheney said.

Characteristically, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld shook his rhetorical fist in the moment of victory, charging that “we are getting scraps of intelligence” charging that Syria is helping Iraqis who support Saddam – including “some family members” – escape Iraq. Rumsfeld also repeated earlier assertions that Syria serves as a conduit for military equipment to Iraqi forces. “I find it notably unhelpful,” he said during a Pentagon news briefing.

Asked whether other countries are potential military targets, Rumsfeld said: “No one is throwing down the gauntlet. … I have nothing to announce. We’re still dealing with Iraq.”

White House observers said the administration was wise to downplay any elation at the military success, cautioning that difficult work remains.

Victory in Iraq is “likely to be ephemeral,” said Thomas E. Mann, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank in Washington. Now the focus must quickly shift to “trying to establish some order over there” and then “turning attention back home to serious economic problems,” Mann said.