WASHINGTON – Hours after making an historic landing aboard a moving aircraft carrier, President Bush told sailors manning the USS Abraham Lincoln Thursday that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
"Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision, speed and boldness the enemy did not expect, and the world had not seen before," Bush told a sea of blue and khaki standing on the flight deck. "Marines and soldiers charged to Baghdad across 350 miles of hostile ground, in one of the swiftest advances of heavy arms in history. You have shown the world the skill and might of the American armed forces."
Bush said the coalition that had liberated Iraq from dictator Saddam Hussein is now working to secure and reconstruct the country. The coalition aims to build schools and hospitals, prosecute Iraqi leaders and find weapons of mass destruction.
"The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless," Bush said. "We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide."
The president praised coalition members that aided the operation — the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland specifically — and credited Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and operation commander Gen. Tommy Franks for jobs well done.
The USS Abraham Lincoln (search), a nuclear-powered vessel, is returning from a record-long 10-month tour, in which it served as the catapult for more than 16,500 sorties. The planes were deployed for three separate Pentagon missions — patrol of the southern no-fly zone in Iraq, operations in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
None of the sorties experienced any difficulties with takeoffs and landings during that time, and there were no problems when members of the press headed to the ship this week ahead of the president.
Bush took a turn at the controls during his flight to the carrier, helming the Navy plane about a third of the way before the pilot made a flawless landing. Wearing a green flight suit, Bush greeted hundreds of the thousands of sailors awaiting his arrival.
In a nod to what is being termed the "Bush Doctrine," the president said that the latest generation of weapons and more efficient command and control operations have ushered in a new form of warfare.
"With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war. Yet it is a great advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent," he said.
The president went out of his way to avoid saying that war with Iraq is over. Iraq represents only a third of the axis of evil — North Korea and Iran were also identified as members in his 2002 State of the Union speech — and only one in a number of states identified as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department.
To that end, Bush's speech portrayed the war in Iraq as part of a larger war on terror, and said that Iraq's liberation is a "crucial advance" in the campaign to end terrorist acts. Making specific reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, the president said "the shock troops of a hateful ideology" failed in destroying America's resolve.
"We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda, 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 that regime is no more," he said.
The president's address aboard the aircraft carrier was specifically not a declaration of victory. The administration is trying to avoid triggering Geneva Convention (search) rules that require the release of prisoners of war, the end of the pursuit of enemy leaders and the designation of the United States as an occupying power once victory is declared.
He did offer some satisfaction to sailors who have been at sea for a seemingly endless tour of duty.
"Other nations in history have fought in foreign lands and remained to occupy and exploit. Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home. That is your direction tonight. After service in the Afghan and Iraqi theatres of war — after 100,000 miles, on the longest carrier deployment in recent history — you are homeward bound," he said as the carrier approached land on a cloudless day in the Pacific.
One hundred and fifty babies were born to the USS Abraham Lincoln sailors while they were away from home.
An administration source said Bush's speech was mostly written over the past weekend by three chief White House speechwriters. The president made "considerable and good edits," reading the speech aloud and making changes as he went along, in his usual style.
"He goes over this very carefully," the source said.
Once the president's changes were incorporated, Bush practiced the speech.
Bush also made history as the first president to land on a ship with the help of cables that stretch across the deck. The cables catch the plane and pull it to a stop in less than 300 feet.
Earlier in the day, Vice President Dick Cheney described how the landing would occur.
"He's going to fly onto the carrier and do a trap — that is, they'll catch him with cable arresting gear. No president's ever done that before. And I'm not sure he told Laura what he is going to do either," Cheney said, referring to the first lady, who did not join the president.
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Chuck Nash told Fox News he observed that the president's aircraft kept its landing gear down after takeoff from San Diego, and suggested it was left down to make sure there were no difficulties with lowering the gear at the end of the approximately 10-minute flight.
Administration officials insisted that the president's ride from San Diego to the ship and the landing aboard the aircraft carrier were not risky.
The USS Abraham Lincoln had slowed its pace in the hours before Bush spoke. Making a fast track toward port, commanders wanted to make sure that no land was seen as the ship neared the Naval base in San Diego.
The president's plane hit the deck at about 150 mph and stopped within seconds.
Bush was set to spend the night on the ship, departing by helicopter before its arrival at San Diego Naval base. The USS Abraham Lincoln's home is in Everett, Wash.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.