WASHINGTON – Six weeks after the start of the war in Iraq, President Bush is prepared to officially declare Thursday that the combat phase is over and the rebuilding phase has begun.
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the president will make the announcement aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (search), where he plans to spend Thursday night as the ship returns from operations in Iraq.
Fleischer said General Tommy Franks (search), the top commander in Iraq, informed the president that it is safe to say that "major combat operations have ended."
"Yesterday the president spoke with General Franks," Fleischer said. "General Franks told the president that major combat operations have ended and that the next phase has begun, which is the reconstruction of Iraq."
However, Central Command has said that Iraq is still a very dangerous place for coalition forces. For the second time in 48 hours, U.S. forces returned fire following an anti-American demonstration in the city of Fallujah, a Baath party stronghold.
This is the second time in two days that soldiers of the 82nd Airborne (search) have come under attack from Iraqi demonstrators armed with AK-47s. The local hospital said 13 Iraqis were killed in the first volley. The mayor of Fallujah said Wednesday that two were killed and 14 wounded in the second demonstration, which was organized to protest the earlier incident.
Central Command said the soldiers who fired were exercising their inherent right to self-defense when they fired back.
Bush's remarks Thursday, expected to last about 20 minutes, will not include a declaration of victory, because the search for weapons of mass destruction and the restoration of stability in Iraq have not yet been completely accomplished.
Under the Geneva Convention (search), when the declaration is made, the victors must release prisoners of war and halt operations targeting specific leaders. However, with Saddam Hussein, his two sons and several regime leaders still at large, the coalition is not prepared to stop the search.
"This is not a formal legalistic ending of the conflict, no. It is the fact that major combat operations have ended," Fleischer said.
The president's remarks will be carried live at 9 p.m. EDT on Fox News Channel.
Fox News' Kelly Wright contributed to this report.