WASHINGTON - Republicans and Democrats in Congress cheered the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad yesterday but cautioned that serious challenges lie ahead as the U.S.-led military effort draws to a close and reconstruction begins.
Congressional leaders had been meeting with President Bush yesterday at the White House when they caught their first televised images of jubilant Iraqis mingling with U.S. tanks in the streets of the Iraqi capital.
Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "The pictures are important, but at the same time, we have to remind ourselves we have a long way to go."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said: "Developments in the last 24 hours in Iraq are extremely encouraging. It appears that we have virtual complete control over Baghdad. Ultimate victory is inevitable."
The key question now, Daschle said, is how to ensure that the United States proves as effective in rebuilding and democratizing Iraq as it has been in toppling Hussein's regime.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said the toppling of a statue of Hussein in Baghdad recalled the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"But this war is not over," he said, "and it will not be over until the Iraqi people are completely free from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction."
Congressional leaders and other lawmakers cautioned yesterday that the military still faces major challenges in Iraq. Among the possible dangers, they say, are that hostile Iraqis will use guerrilla tactics to continue to mount resistance. They also worry that Turkish forces might try to take advantage of the country's disarray to move into northern Iraq.
Lawmakers are "cautiously optimistic," about the situation in Iraq, said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But "there's still every indication that we could see more fighting in the days to come."
Indeed, members of Congress followed the lead of Bush administration officials yesterday, careful not to seem to be gloating or declaring victory prematurely. Less than a week after reporters had pressed lawmakers about whether they thought the war plan was seriously flawed, some members warned that positive developments could be just as fleeting.
"That's the phase we're in now - people are pulling down statues and jumping up and down," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, an Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "But our people are still in considerable danger."
Though Hussein no longer controls Baghdad, Lugar and others expressed fear of chaos in coming days. "This is, for the moment, one of those periods in history where no one may be in control," Lugar said.
Still, for many on Capitol Hill, it was difficult to conceal happiness at the news that Hussein's regime had fallen.
"Fantastic," Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, exclaimed as he ducked into a briefing with military and intelligence officials.
"I feel very good," Rep. Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican, exiting the briefing. "Of course, the aftermath is going to be fraught with difficulties, but we knew that going in."
The televised images of Iraqis tearing down the statue of Hussein showed that they "view us as liberators," Coble said.
Congress has sat largely on the sidelines during the three-week war, with lawmakers acting mostly as spectators, gleaning information from television news reports and daily military and intelligence briefings. The fall of Baghdad will intensify a lively debate in Congress about what role the United States, its allies and the United Nations should play in rebuilding Iraq and installing a civilian government.
"We need to have national unity behind the peace as we have had behind the war, and the administration has to be much more explicit" about its plans for a post-Hussein Iraq, Lugar said.
Lawmakers received two classified briefings yesterday: an afternoon session with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and their daily status report from senior defense and intelligence officials.
On a day of celebratory excitement - in Baghdad and Washington - some sought to focus instead on the need to bring order to war-torn Iraq.
"It's clear that the war has turned," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat. "It's clear, I think, that a cessation of the fighting is on its way. The name of the game now is stability, stability, stability."
As they celebrated the success of U.S. troops yesterday, congressional leaders continued to wrangle over a roughly $80 billion emergency wartime spending bill, with House and Senate leaders trying to resolve differences between the versions they passed last week.
The measure includes more than $62 billion for military action in Iraq, nearly $8 billion for assistance to U.S. partners in the war effort and about $4 billion for homeland security. Despite objections from the White House, it contains a package of about $3 billion for relief to the ailing airline industry.
Negotiations focused in part on pet projects the Senate added to the measure just before it passed, such as $98 million for an animal disease research lab in Iowa and $7 million for upgrades to an Air Force base in Alaska.