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BUSH WAS CAREFUL NOT TO TIP HIS HAND

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For two days, President Bush masked his plan to oust Panama's Manuel Antonio Noriega with a studied show of business-as-usual.

He gaily greeted guests at a White House Christmas party just hours before the full-scale military operation began.Outraged at the slaying of an American Marine and concerned about quickly deteriorating conditions in Panama City, Bush decided on Sunday to mount the assault to topple Noriega's regime, administration officials said.

Bush had been seriously mulling such a strike since the abortive Oct. 3 coup attempt against Noriega, officials said. In fact, the plan for a pre-emptive U.S. move against Noriega actually had been developed months earlier.

Sources said one of the first to learn of the goahead was Vice President Dan Quayle, whom Bush briefed at a brunch on Sunday.

The president went over final plans for the assault at a Tuesday afternoon session with Quayle, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Oval Office meeting, in keeping with the secrecy shrouding the decision, was billed by White House officials as a session between Bush, Cheney and Thornburgh on "the role of the military in the war on drugs."

Elsewhere in Washington and around the United States, attention remains focused on "Operation Just Cause."

$1 million bounty

The Bush administration hopes a $1 million bounty can help produce what the biggest U.S. military offensive since Vietnam failed to promptly achieve: the capture of Panama's Manuel Noriega.

Home for Christmas?

The White House said Thursday the American military occupation of Panama could last for a considerable time, even though Defense Secretary Dick Cheney raised the prospect of withdrawing some U.S. troops by Christmas.

"We certainly aren't willing to give a timetable to it. But everyone recognizes this is not going to be a case of going in Wednesday and coming out Thursday," Fitzwater said.

Congress still supportive?

Members of Congress are tempering their initial support of Bush's decision to attack Noriega's stronghold with concern about the "renegade" dictator's elusiveness and a possible long stay in Panama for U.S. troops.

Here are some comments:

(BU) Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis.: "I can see a scenario whereby the support for this operation could turn difficult for the president.

(BU) Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.: "President Bush's actions were justified based on the changing and alarming circumstances of recent weeks in Panama."

Popular support

Protesters took to the streets in four U.S. cities to denounce the invasion of Panama. But many of them encountered jeers, and unscientific surveys showed Americans overwhelmingly in favor of it.

Scholars on Central America were mixed in their reactions.

"It's obvious that we don't want democracy. We want client states," said John Donaghy, a member of the Central American Solidarity Association, which organized a rally Wednesday on Boston Common.

But passersby jeered about 200 people protesting in front of a U.S. Armed Services recruiting center in New York City.