ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN - Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrapped up Tuesday a tour of a US naval ship famous as a backdrop in the bitter debate over the Iraq war, but this time there was no "mission accomplished" declaration.
Only months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former president George W. Bush flew to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and told a cheering crowd of sailors that combat operations were over, standing on deck before a banner that read "Mission Accomplished."
The highly-choreographed event, with Bush in a flight suit, later came to haunt the White House as sectarian violence spun out of control in Iraq and opponents accused the president of rushing to war ill-prepared.
Speaking Monday to hundreds of sailors in blue uniforms in the ship's cavernous hangar, Gates made no promises of imminent victory in the war in Afghanistan, but expressed appreciation for staging combat flights and invited them to tell him what was on their minds.
"I want to assure all of you gathered here today that though Afghanistan is hundreds of miles away, your unceasing efforts in support of your brothers in arms there, are making an extraordinary impact on the ground," said Gates.
The Pentagon chief stood on a stage in front of a blue and white banner with no slogan, just the name of the Nimitz-class carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln.
The sailors asked about the threat posed by North Korea, retirement benefits, the ban on openly gay troops serving in uniform and defence spending, but did not inquire about the state of Iraq.
Naval officers said the carrier sailed through the Gulf last month in support of US operations in Iraq and had returned to the Arabian Sea, allowing F/A-18 Hornets to fly daily sorties for ground forces in Afghanistan.
Gates has presided over a drawdown of US troops in Iraq under a security agreement with Baghdad, with a 50,000-strong force on the ground through 2011.