Bush to Say Major Combat Has Ended


By Amy Goldstein and Karen DeYoung

Washington Post
May 1, 2003

President Bush plans to deliver an address to the nation tonight in which he will declare that "major combat operations" by U.S. military forces in Iraq have ended, the White House announced yesterday. Administration officials said the president, who will make the televised speech from an aircraft carrier returning to the California coast from the Persian Gulf, will not say that the conflict is entirely over. "This is not, from a legal point of view, the end of hostilities," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "Clearly, we continue to have forces that are shot at and return fire."

Instead, Fleischer said, the president will note "an important moment" in the conflict: The primary role of U.S. forces is shifting from combat to the reconstruction of Iraq, devastated under the leadership of Saddam Hussein and by the war that deposed him. "The Iraqi people have freedom. The threat to the United States has been removed," Fleischer said. Bush's remarks will carry substantial political and foreign-policy implications for a president who has made the dismantling of the Iraqi government part of a broader war on terrorism.

To reinforce the sense that U.S. relations with Iraq are entering a new phase, State Department officials recommended yesterday that Congress lift sanctions -- essentially prohibitions on trade and on military or economic assistance -- that Congress imposed on Iraq because of its designation as a nation that sponsors terrorism. The practical effect would be limited, at least for now, because U.N. sanctions remain in place. Bush is urging their removal, too. Still, the symbolism of removing Iraq from a list of seven nations that Congress has said are terrorist states would be considerable. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has concluded that "the laws that apply to countries that support terrorism no longer apply to Iraq," said J. Cofer Black, the department's coordinator for counterterrorism. At the same time, the limits of what Bush will say tonight also carry significance. Aides said the president will choose his remarks carefully, avoiding any words that could be construed as announcing an official end to hostilities. An official cessation, a concept that has been studied carefully by White House lawyers in recent weeks, is accompanied by specific responsibilities under international law.

Among the responsibilities is a requirement, part of the Third Geneva Convention, that "prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay." At least 6,000 Iraqi prisoners of war are in U.S. custody. An additional few thousand are being held by the British, who have been the main ally of the United States in conducting the war. The U.S. military remains undecided about which prisoners to keep in detention. By withholding a formal declaration ending the war, administration officials said, the government can avoid triggering the Geneva provision before the military is ready to begin the widespread release of its prisoners. Ideally, they said, that declaration would be deferred until a new Iraqi government is set up and can decide which military prisoners to try. Asked when the war will technically be over, Fleischer replied, "I can't make a prediction about the legal matters." He said Bush's decision "will be driven by events on the ground and the reaction of commanders on the ground to those events."

The White House also sought to emphasize that the climate for the U.S. military remains volatile, noting two incidents this week in the town of Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad. U.S. forces have fired on Iraqi protesters challenging the U.S. presence in their country. U.S. officials have said gunshots were fired by the demonstrators first. But Iraqi officials disputed that. Administration officials said Bush decided to deliver his speech, set for 9 p.m. EDT, after conferring on Tuesday with Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command. Franks informed the president that major combat had concluded. The White House had announced several days ago that Bush would travel to San Diego for an overnight stay on the USS Abraham Lincoln, returning from a nine-month deployment -- what the White House yesterday called "a metaphor" for the return of Navy and Marine forces to their families. The speech will be a moment of high political theatrics, delivered from the deck of the aircraft carrier, which will be moving in the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles away from its destination, San Diego. The president is scheduled to land on the carrier this afternoon in a small plane, riding in the front seat next to a Navy pilot.

The nuances of Bush's remarks have been preceded by considerable scrutiny by administration lawyers in a climate in which the administration has been accused in the United Nations and by close allies in Europe of subordinating international law and civil rights at home to the war on terrorism. In Afghanistan, the administration declared it was not bound by the 1949 Geneva Conventions in its treatment of hundreds of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners. They have been held without charges or access to legal counsel as "enemy combatants" barred from U.S. or international legal rights. In contrast, experts in international law said the administration has chosen to scrupulously respect the conventions with regard to Iraqi prisoners.

For political and legal reasons, the administration has also avoided calling its takeover of Iraq an "occupation," although legal experts said it meets the criteria. "Occupation is a dirty word in the Middle East," American University law professor Robert K. Goldman said. "We're liberators." But retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the Pentagon-appointed head of the Office of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance in Iraq, "is absolutely behaving in a way consistent with the powers of an occupier," Goldman said. He cited the U.S. military arrest this week of an Iraqi who had positioned himself as the acting mayor of Baghdad. International law governing the rights and responsibilities of an occupying power are spelled out in the 1907 Hague Convention. It says, "Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army." The law says that an "occupant . . . shall take all measures in his power to restore and ensure as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country."

More Articles on the War Against Iraq
More Information on Iraq

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.