| President Bush in full pilot gear aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. (AP)
Aboard USS Abraham Lincoln, May 2 (Reuters): From the deck of a US aircraft carrier off the California coast, President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over yesterday and called the six-week war “one victory” in the campaign against terror.
After a dramatic cable-assisted landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is steaming home with its crew of more than 5,000 from the longest deployment in three decades, Bush said the US and its allies had won in Iraq.
“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” Bush said in a televised address from the carrier certain to provide powerful pictures for his 2004 re-election campaign. “In the battle of Iraq, the US and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” But he said the war on terror was not over and vowed to strike pre-emptively if needed to protect the US. Bush has sought to tie the deposed government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the al Qaida blamed for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US despite the lack of definitive proof.
“The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror,” he 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 the Iraqi regime is no more.”
Calling the period since September 11 “the 19 months that changed the world,” Bush said the war on terror had not ended with the toppling of Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the US and war is what they got,” he said. “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11, 2001 and still goes on.”
Over the objections of many nations, Washington attacked Iraq on March 20 because of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, but so far it has found none. “We have begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated,” he said.
And Bush cautioned Americans that the US was not yet ready to leave Iraq. “We have difficult work to do. The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done.”
Among US priorities in Iraq, Bush listed “finding leaders of the old regime who will be held to account” and searching for weapons of mass destruction.
On a second US war front, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Kabul yesterday that most of Afghanistan was now secure and US-led forces had moved from major combat operations to a period of stabilisation and reconstruction.
Bush’s theatrical arrival on the aircraft carrier provided the White House with some powerful ammunition for the president’s re-election in 2004.
In San Diego, he exchanged his Air Force One jumbo jet for a small plane dubbed Navy 1 for a short hop that ended in a cable-assisted landing on the Lincoln’s deck. Bush emerged with a swagger and a broad smile, tucked his helmet under his arm and mingled with F-18 pilots and sailors on the flight deck.
“Yes, I flew it ... just steered straight,” Bush, a former pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, told reporters. “Of course I liked it.”
In his speech, Bush came close to declaring all out victory but officials said his address was not meant to be a formal end to hostilities.
In London, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said fighting in Iraq was far from over and the war against terrorism is still on despite US success in Iraq. “It would be a terrible mistake to think that Iraq is a fully secure, fully pacified environment. It is not, it is dangerous,” he said.