WASHINGTON – President Bush’s expected declaration that combat has ended in Iraq will effectively open the rebuilding phase of U.S. operations. It will also make it easier for Bush to move from a war mode to the 2004 presidential election.

Bush will avoid declaring victory in his speech, White House officials say. But the president’s pronouncement that the fighting is essentially over – expected on Thursday in a speech to troops aboard an aircraft carrier off the California coast – has some practical ramifications.

It will help certain types of reconstruction assistance to flow into the country and set the stage for forming a new interim government. It will also remove any doubts – not that there were many – that the United States has assumed responsibility for now for Iraq and its population of 24 million.

“It can open the doors to some forms of U.S. and international assistance that traditionally isn’t available when a country is at war,” said Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon war planner now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These include long-term development and reconstruction aid, she said.

As for becoming responsible for Iraq, “we already are responsible under any interpretation of international law or Geneva Convention,” Flournoy said.

But a declaration also carries risks because it suggests the hard part is finished.

“Fighting the war was the easy part of it,” said Shibley Telhami, a foreign policy professor at the University of Maryland. “The difficult part was when the war ends and you try to win the peace. Everybody understood that going in.”

The speech will enable Bush to inch closer to a declaration of victory, but without actually saying the words. In addition to saying that combat is over and suggesting that Iraq is largely secure, Bush is expected to say that the rebuilding phase has begun.

“He does not look at it as declaring victory,” Fleischer said. “He will use different words to describe where we are.”

But why does he need to declare anything? The United States never expressly declared combat to be over in Afghanistan, the most recent U.S. large-scale military engagement.

Administration officials suggest the president’s address will convey an air of finality to the war that has otherwise been missing – since there was no surrender on the part of the collapsed government of Saddam Hussein, no peace treaty to sign, and still no knowledge of Saddam’s own fate.

Announcing that combat is over also allows Bush to lay down a marker so he can put more attention on the nation’s sluggish economy – and begin working on his own re-election effort.

A day after he addresses troops on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, Bush is scheduled to give a campaign-style speech in Santa Clara, Calif.

A declaration also helps Bush put some distance between himself and the task of reconstruction and establishing a democratic government in Iraq, a process that could be long and messy.

“He’d like to get public attention turned away from Iraq,” said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “This is no longer a daily story of America’s men and women abroad fighting against adversity and for freedom. It’s chaos interrupted by an occasional spasm of violence.”

The president has said he would declare victory only on the advice of Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq. “We’re still waiting to hear from Tommy Franks,” Fleischer said.

But Franks says it’s not up to him to decide whether victory can be declared. That call “is to be made by the president, receiving advice from my boss, the secretary (of defense),” Franks told reporters over the weekend.

“What we know is that the decisive combat … (was) very successful, done quickly, and we’re all very pleased about that,” Franks added.

The Abraham Lincoln is returning from almost nine months in the Persian Gulf region. Bush will spend the night aboard the carrier and leave the next morning before the vessel reaches its home port of San Diego.

By saying that the combat is over, Bush is really just stating the obvious and “everybody knows the job continues,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at Brookings Institution. “At some point you do it, and this is as good a time as any. To me it’s a no-brainer.”

EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.

AP-ES-04-29-03 1559EDT

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