Union Tribune

April 26, 2003

Bush to greet troops returning from war


WASHINGTON President Bush will fly to San Diego on Thursday en route to a rendezvous with the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, where he will greet sailors and Marines homeward-bound from the war with Iraq.

Administration officials yesterday said Bush plans to declare the official end to combat in Iraq in the near future, but White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher declined to speculate whether the president would make the announcement on the Lincoln.

The president will deliver a speech and then spend Thursday night aboard the carrier, but will leave the next morning before the ship docks in San Diego. Fleischer said the president wants to avoid getting in the way of family reunions as the ship nears the end a nine-month deployment.

He said there are no current plans for the president to spend any time in San Diego beyond using the city as a jumping-off point for a lift to the approaching carrier.

The following day he will travel to Santa Clara for a speech on the economy and national security. He will then fly to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he will host the leader of a coalition partner in the Iraqi war effort Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

"The president looks forward to the visit," Fleischer said of the carrier trip. "He knows that the families will be waiting closely behind. And the president looks forward to being at sea to welcome these brave Americans home, and he looks forward then to them pulling into port so they can be reunited with their families."

The Lincoln will stop in San Diego, at North Island Naval Air Station, to off-load the equipment and support personnel from Carrier Air Wing 14 before continuing to its home port at Everett, Wash.

Eight of the nine squadrons in the air wing are based in California, including three at North Island. The squadrons will fly their aircraft to their home stations.

By the time the Lincoln docks at its base, just north of Seattle, it will have undergone one of the longest carrier deployments since the Vietnam War ended nearly 30 years ago.

The Lincoln left Everett July 20 on what was expected to be a routine six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Persian Gulf. It had finished its scheduled tour of duty in the gulf, where the air wing conducted patrols over Iraq's "no fly" zones, and was on its way home when it was ordered back.

When Operation Iraqi Freedom began March 20, the Lincoln joined the San Diego-based Constellation and the Kitty Hawk in launching combat strikes against Iraq. The San Diego-based Nimitz relieved the Lincoln in the gulf on May 9.

For all practical purposes, the combat phase of the operation ended some time ago with the collapse of organized armed resistance by the Iraqi military. British and U.S. forces carried the main burden of the invasion, but Australian and Polish soldiers were also among those joining in the coalition effort.

And although the United States and its allies have moved ahead with a massive relief and reconstruction effort in Iraq, the war officially is expected to continue until Bush signals that it is time for hostilities to cease.

Fleischer said the president would await guidance from military commanders in the Iraqi theater, especially Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command and the overall boss of ground operations in the war.

Since his inauguration in January 2001, Bush has spent eight days in California, a state he lost by a wide margin to Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 election.