ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN - President Bush, on an aircraft carrier homebound from the Persian Gulf, told the nation Thursday that Saddam Hussein's defeat "is one victory in a war on terror" that still goes on.
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," Bush 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. He changed out of his flight suit to address thousands of cheering Navy personnel dressed in yellow, green and power blue crew shirts and crowded aboard the sun-dappled deck to hear their commander in chief.
"The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror," the president said. "We have removed an ally of al-Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more."
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.
"Our mission continues. Al-Qaida is wounded, not destroyed. The scattered cells of the terrorist network still operate in many nations, and we know from daily intelligence that they continue to plot against free people. The proliferation of deadly weapons remains a serious danger. The enemies of freedom are not idle, and neither are we."
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.
"In the battle of Afghanistan, we destroyed the Taliban, many terrorists, and the camps where they trained," he said. "We continue to help the Afghan people lay roads, restore hospitals and educate all of their children. Yet we also have dangerous work to complete."
"And as I speak, a special operations task force, led by the 82nd Airborne, is on the trail of terrorists, and those who seek to undermine the free government of Afghanistan. America and our coalition will finish what we began," he said.
The focus on his speech was Iraq.
"We are helping to rebuild Iraq, where the dictator built palaces for himself instead of hospitals and schools for the people. The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort."
The president cast the Iraq war as but one phase of the overall fight against terrorism.
"From Pakistan to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, we are hunting down al-Qaida killers," he said.
The speech comes as Bush's advisers seek to convert his wartime popularity into political gain in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections.
"The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless," Bush said." We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."
The Lincoln, which was commissioned in 1989 by Vice President Dick Cheney (news - web sites), then defense secretary, was returning from a 10-month deployment, the longest ever by a nuclear-powered carrier.
Its aircraft dropped nearly 1.2 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq, about 40 percent of the firepower that U.S. carriers and their jets rained down.
The president was spending the night in the quarters that the ship's captain usually uses when the carrier is in port.
Overnight, the carrier was heading close enough to its San Diego destination that Bush could helicopter back to land on Friday morning.
In keeping with his practice in recent weeks, Bush was using a defense contractor as the setting for a speech Friday on both national security and the economy. He was visiting the Silicon Valley offices of United Defense Industries, developer of the Bradley fighting vehicle.
The valley is on the fringe of the strongly Democratic San Francisco Bay area, a cradle of the anti-war movement.
Later Friday, Bush was to pick up Australian Prime Minister John Howard for a weekend summit at Bush's Texas ranch. The president was swinging through Arkansas on his way back to Washington on Monday.