Bush Speech Declaring End to 'Major Combat' in Iraq Passes 5th Anniversary
By Al Pessin
01 May 2008

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This week marked the fifth anniversary of the speech President Bush gave on a U.S. aircraft carrier, in which he declared the end of major combat in Iraq. The anniversary came at the end of a difficult month for U.S. forces in Iraq, and caused some renewed debate about the course of the war. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

It was a happy moment for the president. A year and a half after the September 11 attacks he was able to visit a U.S. aircraft carrier on its way home from the Persian Gulf, and speak to the crew under a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."

US President George W. Bush addressing the nation aboard the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, 01 May 2003

BUSH: "Officers and sailors of the USS Abraham Lincoln, my fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

In the speech, the president warned of more work to do to restore order to Iraq and to defeat global terrorism, but he told the crew that day that America had "seen the turning of the tide."

As violence spiraled upward during the following years, the president took a lot of criticism for that speech, and for the "Mission Accomplished" banner, as his press secretary Dana Perino acknowledged this week.

"President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said, 'Mission Accomplished for These Sailors on Who Are on This Ship on Their Mission.' And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner," she noted.

As the speech anniversary passed on May 1, casualty figures indicated 52 American troops died in Iraq in April, making it the deadliest month since the height of the U.S. surge of operations last September. The operations director for the senior U.S. military staff, Lieutenant General Carter Ham, notes that American commanders have warned that even with the success they claim for reduced violence in recent months, there will be setbacks.

"While it is sad to see an increase in casualties, I don't think it is necessarily indicative of a major change in the operating environment," he said.

General Ham said Iraq's government has proved in recent weeks its willingness and ability to take on insurgents, including Shi'ite militias. And he does not believe most Americans will see the April casualty figure as an indication the situation in Iraq is deteriorating again.

Retired Lieutenant General Robert Gard, who has criticized the Iraq war effort, says that is not good enough.

"To say that violence is merely where it was in mid-2005, when it was unacceptable, that doesn't give you a political outcome," he noted.

But in a conference call with reporters marking the speech anniversary, General Gard acknowledged that ending the war quickly will be difficult, even if one of the Democratic Party presidential candidates is elected in November.

"I would guess, of course, which is all I can do, that they would begin to reduce the number of troops in Iraq very shortly after taking office," he added. "Now, where they would go from there would depend to a considerable extent on whether we have done the necessary work ahead of time in a diplomatic offensive."

On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was asked about continuing opposition to the Iraq war among many Americans.

"The question is at this point not whether or not we should be in Iraq," he said. "We are there. The question is, what's the end game?"

The secretary says U.S. policy must remain focused on ending the U.S. combat role in Iraq, while also leaving a representative government in Baghdad that is an ally in the war on terrorism.

"We are where we are, and we have to manage properly how we get from here to where Americans would like us to be, and that is basically out of Iraq in any sense of a major combat role," he added. "But I think despite our impatience as we enter the sixth year of the war, we still have to handle the end of the war and the end of our participation in major combat, in a sensible and thoughtful way."

Referring to continuing 'major combat' hearkens back to President Bush's speech five years ago, reporting the end of "major combat." Officials acknowledge now that will likely not happen until sometime after the president leaves office next January, perhaps a considerable time after.