SAN DIEGO—Hours before he declared Thursday that major combat in Iraq is over, President Bush celebrated by landing in a Navy jet on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier returning home from war.
"In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," Bush said in a nationally televised address surrounded by cheering sailors on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. "Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free."
Earlier Thursday, clad in a green flight suit and looking every bit the fighter pilot, Bush arrived on the carrier in the copilot seat of a Navy S-3B "Viking" jet on the 20-minute flight from San Diego to the USS Abraham Lincoln, 30 miles offshore. Painted on the side of the plane were the words "Navy One" and "George W. Bush, Commander in Chief."
With news cameras broadcasting live, the president's plane made two passes over the carrier before roaring to a safe landing. Its tail hook snagged the last of four cables on the carrier's deck, jolting his plane from 150 miles per hour to a complete stop within about 400 feet.
The drama of Bush's arrival and his war-is-over message gave the moment a red-white-and-blue sheen of patriotic enthusiasm that is destined to highlight political TV ads next year as Bush runs for re-election. Perhaps only Ronald Reagan's tribute to the D-Day veteran "boys of Pointe du Hoc" on the cliffs of Normandy in 1984 rivals this event in melding patriotism and politics into a photo opportunity.
Later, Bush swapped the flight suit for a business suit, red tie and American flag lapel pin to essentially proclaim victory in Iraq and a big step forward in the broader war on terrorism.
"The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began Sept. 11, 2001, and still goes on," Bush said on a clear evening aboard the carrier. "Our mission continues. Al-Qaida is wounded, not destroyed. The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.
"No act of the terrorists will change our purpose or weaken our resolve or alter their fate. Their cause is lost. Free nations will press on to victory."
The president took pains to note that even in Iraq, U.S. efforts are not over.
"We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous," Bush said. "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done, and then we will leave, and we will leave behind a free Iraq."
Bush added that with Saddam Hussein's ouster, "we've 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 regime is no more."
Bush also used the speech to praise U.S. forces for their efficiency and professionalism. "America is grateful for a job well done," he said. The Iraq conflict, he said, demonstrated that modern tactics and precision weaponry allowed for military objectives against Saddam's government to be achieved with a minimal impact on civilians.
In a pointed warning to potential hostile nations, Bush put them on notice that the United States stands ready to act against them.
"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," he said.
If the content of Bush's speech was familiar, his aircraft carrier landing was anything but; it was unprecedented for a president, and Bush made the most of it.
Bush strutted off the plane holding his flight helmet in the crook of his left arm and wearing a broad smile as cameras broadcast his every move nationwide. He shook hands, saluted sailors and posed for photos with pilots on the flight deck before taking a tour of the carrier.
Asked whether he had flown the plane, Bush, a former pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, said, "Yes, I flew it. Yeah, of course, I liked it." White House aides said security was reviewed thoroughly before the decision to let Bush make the landing; the Lincoln has had over 12,700 takeoffs and arrested landings in the past nine months without incident. "If it was not safe, it would not be done," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
At least one Democrat bidding to take Bush's job in next year's election, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was unwilling to cede the day to Bush. In a conference call with political reporters, Kerry contrasted Bush's carrier imagery with less dramatic scenes back on shore.
"The president is going to an aircraft carrier to give a speech far out at sea with military surroundings while countless numbers of Americans are frightened about the economy here at home," Kerry said.
Bush was to spend the night aboard the nuclear-powered carrier. He was to appear Friday at a factory in Santa Clara, Calif., that makes Bradley Fighting Vehicles. There he is expected to expand on themes he has emphasized during three other campaign-like domestic trips over the past two weeks, when he has stressed both national security and economic revival themes, visiting military-related sites as he calls for Congress to cut taxes.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Steven Thomma and Jessica Guynn contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030501 USIRAQ