Washington, Dec. 14: In America’s capital, which has been haunted in recent months by the larger-than-life unseen presence of Saddam Hussein, the prize of the former Iraqi dictator’s capture was received with a surprising degree of humility.
More than seven hours after the news broke on early morning television, President George W. Bush appeared in the White House Cabinet Room and warned the American people: “The capture of Saddam Hussein does not mean the end of violence in Iraq. We still face terrorists who would rather go on killing the innocent than accept the rise of liberty in the heart of the Middle East”.
“In the history of Iraq, a dark and painful era is over. A hopeful day has arrived. All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq.”
The low-key official reaction here to the dramatic events near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit belied hyperactivity at key US government offices here, unseen in recent memory on any weekend.
Although Bush waited until noon here (10.30 pm IST on Sunday) to address the nation, he obviously considered Saddam’s capture important enough to cancel a rendezvous with God.
The President — who normally spends his weekends at the mountain retreat of Camp David — returned here on Saturday evening to beat a snowstorm that hit the capital today and to walk across to a church opposite the White House for Sunday morning service, followed by the taping of a television Christmas special.
After watching a televised news conference at which Paul Bremer, the head of Iraq’s occupation authority, announced the prize capture, Bush was immersed in meetings with his senior aides and decided not to go to church.
At the Pentagon, which has been taking a lot of heat over the failure to find the deposed Iraqi President, its website was emblazoned in bright red with the word “captured” splashed over two ace of spades playing card pictures of Saddam.
The main reason Bush administration officials here are not gloating over the former dictator’s capture is the worry that although today’s announcement may have a big psychological impact within Iraq, there may yet be no end to the insurgency there which is taking a daily toll of American lives.
Administration officials were today cautioning journalists that the insurgents may continue to attack the US occupation without Saddam, some even suggesting that the strikes may increase in reprisals for the capture of the former strongman.
Bush was first told on Saturday afternoon by defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld that a raid near Tikrit may have netted Saddam, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
“The conversation began by secretary Rumsfeld saying something to the effect of: Mr President, the first reports are not always accurate... Both expressed some caution at this point because it was not confirmed. The President and the secretary talked about how — discussed the potential that this could be an impostor, so they were still cautious at that point.”
The “ifs” and “buts” in Rumsfeld’s information were also put in because Bush has seen several failed US attempts before, during and after the war, to kill or capture Saddam. “The President said that this ought to be reported from the theatre (since) it is a military matter,” McClellan explained why no information was released here at all last night until the prize capture was announced in Baghdad today.
Shortly after 5 am today (3.30 pm IST), the President was told by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, that Baghdad had confirmed Saddam had become a captive of the Americans.
There was only one better Christmas present that Bush could have asked for: the capture or death of Osama bin Laden. At least for the time being, Saddam’s captivity will rob opposition Democrats of a powerful argument in the developing campaign for the White House in 2004.
Several Democrats who hope to defeat Bush next year were today congratulating him. But, more important, it will pacify an increasingly restive Republican Party, which has been unhappy with the lack of progress in Iraq, both on reconstruction and on the ground.