ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN -- President Bush, aboard an aircraft carrier homebound from war, said Thursday night "the United States and our allies have prevailed" against Saddam Hussein's Iraq and will confront any other threatening nation suspected of terrorist ties.
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," Bush said from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which launched thousands of airstrikes on Iraq. "The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on."
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 gathered beneath a banner that read, "Mission Accomplished."
Struggling with his emotions, Bush's voice broke as he called the liberation of Iraq a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. "We have removed an ally of al-Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding," he said. "And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more."
Closure without victory
He sought to give the nation a closure to the fighting while avoiding a sweeping claim of overall victory. Bush 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.
Ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction was the Bush administration's main justification for going to war. So far, no such weapons have been found.
An official declaration of victory could have triggered 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.
"Our mission continues," Bush said. "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."
He reiterated his foreign policy principles, promising to target anyone who plans attacks against the United States and any country that supports terrorists.
While promising to be a "loyal friend" to any nation that helps his anti-terrorist campaign, Bush said, "Any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups, and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction, is a grave danger to the civilized world, and will be confronted."
The president did not single out any country, though the White House has accused both Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism. He has dubbed Iraq, Iran and North Korea an "axis of evil."
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.
Later, in his address, Bush received his loudest ovation when he spoke of the sailors returning home after weeks away.
"Being stuck at sea for nine and a half months, you start to wonder what's going on in the heads of the people above you," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Modicus. "This shows we're not forgotten."
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, 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.