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Bush speech to avoid declaration of victory in Iraq

Remarks to tout military success, but cite work ahead

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

President Bush walks on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln after landing in a Navy plane.
President Bush walks on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln after landing in a Navy plane.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush touts the "liberation of Iraq" in a speech he will deliver Thursday night from the deck of an aircraft carrier, but he warns that "difficult work" remains and that the broader war against terrorism continues.

In excerpts of the speech released in advance by the White House, Bush applauds the members of the military for their "accomplishment" and affirms the U.S. commitment to helping rebuild Iraq.

"Our coalition will stay until our work is done," Bush says in the excerpts.

In the speech, Bush will declare that major combat is over in Iraq, but stop short of a formal declaration of victory, according to White House aides.

The speech will be carefully worded, aides said -- a fact borne out of both political and legal considerations. A formal declaration of victory carries with it certain obligations under the Geneva Conventions, and it could also invite questions about the continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

The setting of the speech will be dramatic -- from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is returning home after about 10 months at sea. Bush arrived at the huge carrier on a Navy plane, sitting in the co-pilot's seat. The carrier will be about 100 miles off the California coast as Bush speaks. (Full story)

In the speech excerpts, the president talks about some of the remaining work in Iraq.

"We are pursuing and finding leaders of the old regime, who will be held to account for their crimes," Bush says. "We have begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated. We are helping to rebuild Iraq ... The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take some time, but it is worth every effort."

Bush will avoid using the word "victory," aides said.

There are several reasons. For one, although major combat is over, skirmishes in Iraq continue as exemplified by deadly exchanges in the city of Fallujah between protesters and U.S. soldiers. Also, although Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the former Iraqi president and members of his inner circle, including his two sons, remain unaccounted for.

Scholars familiar with laws governing war say that a formal declaration of victory would complicate efforts by coalition forces to track down these former members of Saddam's regime.

"If we say the war is over, it makes it more difficult to pursue these individuals," said Anthony Clark Arend, professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. He has written a book on international law and the use of force.

Geneva Conventions

start quoteNo terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more.end quote
-- President Bush, in excerpt of speech released by White House

The Geneva Conventions also call for the release and repatriation "without delay" of prisoners of war at the close of hostilities.

"Generally, that means you repatriate them to the existing government," Arend said. "Well, there's no place to repatriate them to."

Pentagon officials said last week there were about 7,000 Iraqi prisoners of war, but added that hundreds of them have been released.

Arend said he suspects the president doesn't want to say anything "too definite" to avoid any challenges about the U.S. role in Iraq.

Robert Goldman, a law professor at American University, agreed, saying the administration is sensitive to being portrayed as an "occupier" of Iraq. In fact, the administration has pointedly rejected that word, describing the United States as a "liberator" instead.

"This is a spin," Goldman said. "The term occupation has nasty connotations."

And declaring an end to the war could, he said, prompt renewed scrutiny about the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer made clear the administration's view that the president's speech tonight will not change the legal landscape.

"The remarks... do not change any legal matters," he said Wednesday.

The speech, Fleischer added, will allow Bush to talk "in direct, plain English to the American people so they can understand what was at stake (and) what has been accomplished."

The president is scheduled to deliver his remarks at 9 p.m. ET.

In the excerpts, Bush casts the war in Iraq as part of a larger fight against terrorism.

"We are committed to freedom in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in a peaceful Palestine," Bush says. "The advance of freedom is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror."

And Bush tied Saddam regime to the al Qaeda terrorist network, something the administration has done before.

"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."

-- CNN White House Correspondent Dana Bash and Pentagon Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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