| An Iraqi hits a statue of President Saddam Hussein with a sandbag in Baghdad on Wednesday. (AFP)
Washington, April 9 (Reuters): The White House called scenes of joyful Iraqis welcoming US troops in Baghdad today and toppling a huge statue of Saddam Hussein an historic moment but warned Americans against “leaping too far ahead.”
As the pictures played out on television screens in the executive mansion, US President George W. Bush kept a low profile and the watchword was caution.
“At this given moment in time ... we are still in the midst of a shooting war,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
There was no sign of celebration. Fleischer said he did not know if Bush had yet seen the pictures of jubilant crowds swarming into Baghdad streets, looting and defacing images of the Iraqi President, but that he had been briefed about them.
The President, who has no planned public appearances today, stuck to his announced schedule of discussing the war and domestic issues over breakfast with congressional leaders. They left without speaking to reporters. Later, Bush met President Rudolf Schuster of Slovakia, whose country has sent non-combat troops specialising in chemical warfare decontamination to Iraq.
Aides in the White House press office watched spellbound as Iraqis toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein in the heart of Baghdad and dragged its head through the streets.
“Clearly the scenes that people are watching on television now are heartening signs of military progress and mankind’s taste for freedom and the Iraq people’s yearning to be free,” Fleischer said. “It’s an historic moment.”
Bush's rationale for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had shifted perceptibly in recent weeks from disarmament to liberation. He spoke more and more of the brutalities of the Saddam regime and less and less about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. There have been no confirmed findings of banned arms so far.
“Freedom’s taste is unquenchable,” Fleischer said. “I mean, this is a powerful testament to mankind’s desire to live free and that includes, of course, the Iraqi people, as the President always said it would.”
But he said Bush also wanted to make the point that what Americans were seeing on television in parts of Baghdad “is only that, one section of Baghdad” and that other sections and other places remained risky for US armed forces.
“I want to urge caution on leaping too far ahead. There are still cities in Iraq that are under regime control and what you are watching on television is only that which the lens can see at that given moment,” Fleischer said. A senior US official said Bush was heartened by continuing good military reports from the field but he added, ”As well as things have gone, this is still a military mission and therefore lives are still at stake.”
In Cairo, Arabs watched in disbelief today as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, described by one Moroccan as the Arab world’s “best dictator”, lost Baghdad to US-led forces without a fight.
“It’s like a movie. I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” said Adel, a lawyer in Beirut.“Why didn't he just give up to start with if this was all the resistance he could muster' Instead of wasting all those lives for nothing.”
People gathered around television sets in shops and coffee houses watching US troops toppling a huge statue of Saddam in the heart of Baghdad and Iraqis dancing on it.
“It seemed that Iraqis were all with Saddam, now it looks like many didn’t like him. Maybe those destroying the statue are rebels against Saddam’s rule,” engineer Magdy Tawfiq said as he watched Saddam’s statue being toppled by a US tank.
But security guard Waleed Tawfiq said he still did not believe Saddam was out. “I will be upset if it turns out Saddam has lost power. He tried to defend his land. If he is dead he will be a martyr.” Most Arabs have no love for Saddam. But his defiance towards the US has been met with approval in a region angry at Washington’s support for Israel and perceived interference in Arab affairs.
, and the presence of U.S. forces in Arab countries.
Three weeks of war in Iraq have sparked anger across the Arab world, and the anger grew as civilian casualties mounted. Protesters at hundreds of rallies have chanted praise for ”beloved” Saddam and held his picture aloft.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told ABC's“Good Morning America” program,“It's clear that the end is very much in sight and today I think Americans should be very proud of their leadership, of their technology, but most of all the men and women in the military.”
The senior official also warned Iraq's neighbors against harboring Saddam or his top aides.
Asked about reports that efforts were under way to smuggle a badly wounded Saddam and his son Uday into Syria, he said: ”No go. He had his opportunity to leave the country and he didn't take it.”
”We don't know if he's alive or dead,” the official added.
A CIA official said it was not known whether Saddam and his sons had survived an attack on Monday in which a B-1 bomber dropped four 2,000-pound (900-kg) bombs on a building in the Baghdad district of Mansur.