Bush set to declare combat phase over

President to give speech aboard carrier as he seeks to energize reconstruction

Postwar Iraq

April 30, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a speech tomorrow aboard the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush is expected to declare that the combat phase in Iraq is over and that it's time for the U.S. military to focus on securing and rebuilding the country.

"We're transitioning to security and stabilization operations," said a senior Defense Department official.

The president is likely to caution that even though combat has essentially ended, the threat of armed opposition remains, and he will not formally declare victory. He is "going to be very careful to not indicate the shooting's over," the Pentagon official said.

Bush will stay overnight on the Lincoln, which is off the coast of California and headed to San Diego and then to its homeport of Everett, Wash. He will leave the next morning.

The backdrop of the Lincoln - the longest-serving carrier in the war (10 months) and the only one equipped with the Navy's most sophisticated warplane (the F/A-18E Super Hornet) - will offer Bush a triumphant commander-in-chief moment, even though the fate of Saddam Hussein, and much of his top leadership, remains a mystery.

The speech will seek to energize the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts overseen by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, allowing officials to press for additional aid from other countries.

"What you're doing is declaring it safe for humanitarian operations," said another Pentagon official.

Some humanitarian groups have complained about the unstable security in Iraq, their lack of access to some areas and the fact that combat operations gave the military priority over roads and airports. With the end of fighting, the U.S.-led forces could shift their focus to making sure more areas of the country are safe for relief workers.

"As you move to stabilization, you're not competing with the military for access rights," said Sandra Mitchell, vice president of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian relief agency. "We need a secure environment to work in."

With a shift from combat to stabilization, "there may be an easing in getting into the country," said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for Inter Action, the largest U.S. umbrella organization for private relief and development groups. "The environment is not secure. It doesn't mean anything unless they commit the resources on the ground to match the rhetoric. It's an enormous country. It takes people."

Relief groups have just begun to move back into Iraq. The International Rescue Committee opened an office in the southern city of Basra last week and is starting to move staff members into the north.

Baghdad, though, poses more of a problem, Mitchell said. "It's still difficult to get set up in Baghdad, primarily because of the security situation," she said.

Bush's speech announcing an end of combat and a move toward stabilization in Iraq will also give him the chance to spotlight a resounding military success. It might also help the administration convince other countries that now is the time to help in rebuilding Iraq.

"That's very much a work in progress," a defense official said.

Some countries, such as Italy, have pledged police, and Albania has sent a few troops to patrol around Mosul with the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Yesterday, Canada said that it would provide cargo aircraft and personnel to the humanitarian effort and that it would possibly offer more aid. Canada has already committed more than $100 million to relief efforts.

Some analysts had speculated that the administration was in no hurry to declare an end to the combat phase and to move toward securing and stabilizing Iraq. That's because the shift would require the United States, under international treaties, to assume responsibility for all facets of Iraqi society.

The United States is a party to two groups of international treaties - the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 - that form the basis for a general law of war. The laws require protection of prisoners and civilians during war. They also impose responsibilities on an invading army that has seized control of enemy territory and has assumed the role of "belligerent occupant."

The occupying army must ensure that basic humanitarian needs are met, either by supplying food and medicine or ceding that function to an aid organization. It must also seek to restore public order, respect the right to freedom, enforce criminal laws and ensure that a judicial system is functioning.

Moreover, the United States faces new obstacles to finding or killing Hussein. So long as combat operations continued, Hussein himself was a military target. But during a military occupation, he becomes a "protected person," subject to criminal prosecution.

In any case, the laws of occupation would have little legal effect because the United States does not recognize the International Criminal Court, which most likely would be called on to enforce the laws.

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