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SAN DIEGO (AP) -- President Bush wants to call the war in Iraq a success and give Americans some sense of finality now that U.S. warplanes are no longer dropping bombs on Baghdad and military ground operations are limited mostly to skirmishes and policing.
Six weeks ago, Bush appeared on television to inform the nation that the war had begun with a mission targeting Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein.
On Thursday, Bush was to mark the end of major military operations in a new, prime-time television address, this time from the deck of an aircraft carrier steaming its long-absent crew toward home.
On the same day that Bush was prepared to proclaim fighting over in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was made a similar declaration for U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Bush also is to proclaim that the speedy military operation has improved the security of the United States and liberated the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein's brutal reign, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. While ushering out the combat phase, Bush's remarks will herald the official beginning of Iraq's reconstruction, he said.
"This is a marked and important moment because ... the Iraqi people now have freedom. The threat to the United States has been removed," Fleischer said.
Still, the president will carefully parse his words so that he does not actually declare either victory or an end to war.
Such declarations could trigger international provisions 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.
Another factor is the situation on the ground. U.S. troops have fired on and killed anti-U.S. protesters in recent days, for instance, after saying they were fired on first from among the crowds. "Threats do, indeed, remain," Fleischer said.
Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction that were Bush's rationale for war -- but which have not been found -- are another tricky topic. White House officials were cryptic about how, or if, the president would handle it -- or the unknown whereabouts of Saddam.
Fleischer also would not predict when the war would be declared legally over.
In a sign of the political significance of the address, set for 9 p.m. EDT, Bush rehearsed the speech Wednesday in the White House theater.
Providing the backdrop for the carefully staged event are the more than 5,000 sailors and Marines who are still aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and will be only hours away from seeing their families for the first time in nearly 10 months. The ship, bound for its home port of Everett, Wash., is to reach San Diego Friday.
A total of 16,500 sorties were launched from the Lincoln deck as part of three separate Pentagon missions -- the operation to patrol the southern no-fly zone in Iraq, the military's efforts in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq. No aircraft or Navy personnel were lost in the sorties.
In paying his tribute, Bush was to portray the Iraq war as just one piece of the continuing war on terror. He also was to broadly outline his vision of a new kind of warfare, a senior administration official said.
Bush flew from the White House to California on Air Force One. Then, after exchanging his suit and tie for a flight suit and getting briefed on ejection procedures, he was ferried to the ship, still hundreds of miles off the California coast, by a tiny Navy plane.
The S-3B "Viking" -- dubbed Navy One because of its presidential passenger -- has room only for Bush, riding in the front seat next to the pilot, and two or three more passengers.
The president was in for an exciting -- but not risky --landing, according to administration officials. As the plane hits the Lincoln at about 150 mph, cables stretched across the deck are to catch it and wrench it to a stop in only a couple seconds.
"Never can tell what's going to kick in," the president, a former pilot, joked to reporters before an Oval Office meeting Wednesday with the president of Colombia. "Let me just say, stay clear of the landing pattern."
Rear Adm. John Kelly, commander of the Lincoln battle group, said Thursday on CBS' "The Early Show" that the pilot slated to land Bush on the carrier "has flown through extraordinary pressure in support of combat operations for months now. I am very confident that he'll do a great job."
White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said Thursday on NBC's "Today" that flying the jet to the carrier "is actually safer than a helicopter because you have the ability to eject. In a helicopter, if something goes wrong, you're stuck."
Once aboard, Bush was touring the 1,100-foot ship's operations center, watching fighter jets take off from the deck and meeting with F-18 pilots and with Capt. Kendall L. Card. He was dining with about 150 enlisted sailors after the speech.
The president was spending the night in captain's quarters. After breakfast in the morning, he was to leave ahead of the carrier's arrival into port so his presence would not delay troops' reunion with loved ones.
His return to land would be far less thrilling, but by more familiar means -- the Marine One helicopter that is one of his standard modes of transport.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)