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Bush distances himself from sign aboard carrier

It was, from its inception, one of the most daring "photo ops'' in presidential history: President Bush's tailhook landing on May 1 on the USS Abraham Lincoln amid cheers and a huge sign proclaiming "Mission Accomplished.'' Now it is surely the most disputed.

As the Iraq war has dragged on as a deadly guerrilla fight, the carrier landing - and especially the "Mission Accomplished'' sign - has become a symbol of Bush's bravado and the administration's failure to foresee the extent of the Iraqi struggle. It was ridiculed in speeches by Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and highlighted on the cover of Time magazine with the headline "Mission Not Accomplished.''

Yesterday, in a rueful tone, Bush said that the sign was not produced by his team but by the sailors on the Lincoln - and he seemed to blame his advance team for the whole episode.

"I was there to thank the troops,'' Bush said. "The 'Mission Accomplished' sign, of course, was put up by the members of the USS Abraham Lincoln saying that their mission was accomplished. I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man on my staff. They weren't that ingenious, by the way.''

The Navy initially backed up Bush's account, saying sailors wanted the sign to celebrate their return home. Then it said that while the sailors asked for a banner, the White House produced it.

By then, Kerry had issued a news release pointing to a New York Times report from the day of the landing that a Bush advance man had arranged camera angles to make sure the sign was visible.

In fact, Bush began his speech by saying: "My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.''

"I think it's outrageous he would blame the sailors for that,'' said retired General Wesley K. Clark, a Democratic candidate for president. "The next thing we're going to hear is that the sailors told him to wear the flight suit and prance around on the aircraft carrier. This is a president who doesn't want to take accountability.''

William Carrick, an adviser to the campaign of Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said, "He can dis his advance men all he wants, but they did an excellent job: They produced exactly the photo ops that the White House wanted.''

Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Bryan Bender contributed to this report.

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