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AFTER THE WAR

President to Declare Combat Is Over

Bush will address U.S. tonight from the carrier Abraham Lincoln returning from Iraq.

May 01, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush today will declare an end to major combat in Iraq, his spokesman said Wednesday, as the White House moves quickly to link Saddam Hussein's ouster to the new effort to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The announcement that the president will make a nationally televised address tonight coincided with the release of the U.S.-backed "road map" for achieving peace between the two longtime antagonists in the Middle East.

"The fact that one of the lead sponsors of violence has been removed from the scene -- Saddam Hussein -- is an important piece of the prospects for peace in the Middle East," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.

The president weighed in on the issue during brief public comments with visiting Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "The war on Iraq has made it absolutely clear that those who harbor terrorists, fund terrorists or harbor weapons of mass destruction will be held to account," Bush said. "That, in itself, helps create the conditions to move peace forward."

In his 6 p.m. speech from an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, the president will not proclaim victory or announce the end of the war.

Rather, Fleischer said, Bush will review the conflict's objectives, take note of its "significant accomplishments" and thank the troops.

Bush will also remind Americans that the war against terrorism continues -- because Iraq was only "a phase" in that campaign, Fleischer said.

The president is not ready yet to declare an end to the Iraq war because "hostilities remain," Fleischer said. "There are pockets of resistance. There continue to be Iraqis who shoot at America's armed forces."

Moreover, a flat-out victory declaration remains problematic for Bush because U.S. forces still have not found any weapons of mass destruction -- whose supposed existence in Iraq was a key reason behind Bush's decision to launch the war.

But Fleischer said the president retains his "high confidence that the weapons of mass destruction will be found." At the same time, the press secretary noted, the other central aim of the war -- ousting Hussein -- has been achieved.

"Iraq no longer is a terrorist state," Fleischer said. "The chief terrorist and his cronies have been removed."

Bush is scheduled to arrive in the San Diego area aboard Air Force One late this morning and then switch to a four-seat Navy plane that will fly him to the San Diego-bound Abraham Lincoln. The ship still will be more than 100 miles offshore.

"The president is eagerly anticipating this trip. He's very excited about the prospect of being directly with many of the sailors and the Marines who helped make the success of the [Iraqi] mission possible," Fleischer said.

He said Bush cannot travel by helicopter to the Lincoln because the carrier will still be too far out to sea.

Although Fleischer said Hussein's departure improves the chances of peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, he added: "It does fundamentally come down to the two parties."

Still, Fleischer said, Hussein's ouster "does remove one source of instability that paid for suicide-homicide bombers to cross into Israel and take innocent lives."

The timing of Bush's speech today was prompted by an assessment from Army Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command. Fleischer said Franks on Tuesday told Bush "that major combat operations have ended and that the next phase has begun, which is the reconstruction of Iraq."

After his address, the president will spend the night aboard the carrier and depart Friday morning before the Lincoln reaches San Diego.

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