WASHINGTON -- President Bush described U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf yesterday as "the finest combat force ever assembled," thanked them for their "courage and resolve," and promised they would be coming home "soon."
"The stunning success of our troops was the result of superb training, superb planning, superb execution, and incredible acts of bravery," Mr. Bush said in a speech taped by Armed Forces Radio for broadcast to the U.S. forces in the gulf. He added:
"We promised this would not be another Vietnam. And we kept that promise. The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula."
Two of Mr. Bush's top aides, meanwhile, estimated that the withdrawal of the half-million men and women who participated in Operation Desert Storm would begin within one or two weeks.
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, responding to questions on Cable News Network's "Newsmaker Saturday" program, said he expected to have a plan ready "within the next week or two," and estimated that withdrawal could begin "almost immediately" after the plan is prepared.
White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, appearing on CNN's "Evans & Novak" program, sounded even more optimistic. He said the time before announcement of a "specific schedule" for withdrawal could be "measured in days," adding: "I suspect they'll be coming home right after the announcement."
As to how long the U.S. withdrawal may take, Reuters quoted a "senior" U.S. official as saying yesterday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: "We hope to be out within as early as 90 days. That's what we're looking at. . . . This is not to say we may not need to be there for longer, but we're projecting 90 days."
Mr. Cheney was somewhat more cautious. He said that he will aim to pull out the troops "as quickly as possible" and that the withdrawal will surely take less time than was needed to put the troops in place in the gulf.
Some of Mr. Cheney's caution appeared to reflect an unwillingness to state with certainty just what kind of U.S. military presence will need to remain in the gulf -- a matter, he said, that will have to be worked out with "our Arab allies."
The Iraqi invasion, he said, made it clear that the area will require a "more organized security system," and the gulf nations may seek U.S. participation in a "more coherent" defense force with an "integrated command system."
But the defense secretary expressed certainty that there will be a "beefed-up" U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and a "more robust" U.S. air presence.
Mr. Bush, who taped his speech to the U.S. troops before leaving Washington Friday to spend the weekend at Camp David, said that the United States "must remain vigilant to make absolutely sure the Iraqi dictator is never, ever allowed to stoke the ashes of defeat into the burning embers of aggression."
He concluded: "The first test of the new world order has been passed. The hard work of freedom awaits."