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Thursday, May 1

Bush delivers cautious assessment of Iraq

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - In a precedent-setting, highly symbolic location, President Bush on Thursday came to declare the end of major hostilities in Iraq and praise the military that fought there. But equally symbolic to the age of terrorism, Bush did not proclaim the end of the war.

There can be no official peace declarations against a continuing terrorism threat and a murky debate over weapons of mass destruction. The United States still has not found Saddam Hussein's alleged death arsenal that Bush cited as a threat and therefore he has been denied the moral clarity that discovery would have given him. Many Americans say the horrors uncovered under Saddam were worth going to war for, but that feeling is not universal, especially in the Arab world.

And the task ahead in Iraq - a nation of potentially adverse interests long-held together by a dictator's terror - is exactly the tricky kind of nation building that Bush played down in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Bush's landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln as it sailed toward safe harbor in San Diego was symbolic of these inherent tensions. Landing on the deck of a poignant symbol of American military power, he nonetheless came with a message as cautionary as it was celebratory.

While praising the American military, Bush warns, ``we have difficult work to do in Iraq,'' according to prepared remarks released by the White House.

``We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous. ...The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort.''

And, Bush adds, ``From Pakistan to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, we are hunting down al-Qaida killers. The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.''

The last time a major end-of-hostilities declaration took place on an American warship came on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay as World War II ended nearly 58 years ago. Americans danced in Times Square and in town squares to celebrate the end of a global war.

There was no such sense of finality Thursday, no accompanying relief. Part of the White House's cautionary tone is legal. By declaring a war's end, the United States would have to accede to certain legal requirements under the Geneva Conventions, including the release of some prisoners.

There are still scattered pockets of resistance in Iraq and major pockets of worry in the United States.

To dramatize both points, at least 15 Iraqis have been killed in clashes with U.S. forces this week. And Pakistan arrested six al-Qaida suspects, including one of the terrorist organization's top planners. Both events were reminders that leaders in both conflicts - Saddam and Osama bin Laden - both remain unaccounted for. As Iraq seeks stability and the pursuit of al-Qaida continues, the future can seem just as shadowy.

``We are knocking them off,'' Erwin Hargrove, a presidential scholar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said of terrorists. ``But the big question, I suppose, is whether young new recruits come out of the Middle East as a result of this action and nobody knows the answer to that.''Hargrove is not optimistic about the long-term implications for Iraq, arguing that Bush made a tenuous connection between al-Qaida and Saddam. He said he fears that Bush is using an ``extreme kind of nationalism'' to push a new pre-emptive foreign policy and tax cuts at home. Both, Hargrove added, have major long-term consequences.

Bush went to sea to deliver his message, but the major political question facing him is domestic: whether he is able to translate the feel-good atmosphere aboard the Lincoln to impending debates over domestic policy. The presidential election, 18 months distant, is nonetheless beginning to press. The nine Democrats who want Bush's job will debate Saturday night in South Carolina.

The sailors and pilots on the Lincoln return to a country more confident in the war on terror but persistent in their worries over layoffs, weak profits and a stagnant stock market.

As the war in Iraq progressed, there was a ``soaring increase'' in the public's belief that the United States was winning the war on terrorism, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

But Kohut pointed out that other recent surveys have shown that about two-thirds of Americans said a candidate's position on economic issues next year will be more important than their position on Iraq.