Bush declares end of combat

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — President Bush, on an aircraft carrier homebound from the Persian Gulf, told the nation last night that Saddam Hussein’s defeat “is one victory in a war on terror” that still goes on.

“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” the president said from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which sent thousands of jets into war. “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

Bush flew to the carrier on a Navy jet and made a screeching stop as his plane was snagged by a cable stretched across the deck. It was an apparent presidential first; traditionally they use helicopters to visit aircraft carriers.

“The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror,” the president said.

Bush sought to give the nation a closure to the fighting while avoiding a sweeping claim of overall victory. He said much still needed to be done, including bringing order to the country, finding weapons of mass destruction, creating a democratic government and pursuing leaders of the fallen regime, including Saddam. “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on,” he said.

Bush stopped short of declaring victory or an end to the war. Such declarations could trigger international laws requiring the speedy release of prisoners of war, limiting efforts to go after deposed Iraqi leaders and designating the United States as an occupying power.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, returning from the Persian Gulf, was about 30 miles from San Diego when Bush landed. A former pilot, he got a turn at the controls, flying about a third of the way. Bush emerged in a green flight suit, carrying his helmet, and shouted to reporters, “Yes, I flew it!” He said he had only steered the plane “straight ahead” and wasn’t tempted to try to land it. It was a made-for-television day sure to be replayed during Bush’s re-election campaign. With a wide grin, the president lingered on the deck with crew members, shaking hands and posing for pictures. “Good job,” he shouted to sailors. The ship was slowed so Bush could spend the night on board before it docked on Friday, officials said. He watched dozens of fighters roar off the ship one last time on the way to home bases.

The president’s speech marked the end of combat in Iraq and a refocusing on the ailing economy at home.

With the shores of California in sight, Bush said dangerous work also remains in Afghanistan. Hours earlier, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said major combat had ended in that country, where U.S. troops had routed the Taliban months ago.