That question has lurked in the background since the war began. Answering it is complicated because the Bush administration has listed several goals for the war.
One aim of the campaign — ousting Saddam Hussein and his cohorts from power — appears nearly accomplished. Gen. Tommy Franks on Friday told his troops that Saddam's regime has ended.
But it might take years to see if President Bush's larger goals are fulfilled, like his hopes for a free and democratic Iraq, a more stable Middle East and peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The president and his spokespeople have said countless times that the war's "outcome is not in doubt" in other words, that Iraq would lose — but have been less specific in identifying exactly what that outcome would look like.
Asked Wednesday what would have to happen for the president to declare victory, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Mr. Bush "has said that this is a military mission, that the military remains in harm's way, and until the military mission is accomplished, I don't think the President is going to be at that point in his own mind."
Pressed by a reporter to define the military mission that has to be accomplished, Fleischer said: "There still is fighting that could lay ahead."
Later, Fleischer said victory meant "total freedom for the Iraqi people everywhere in Iraq; not just in some cities, not just in certain religious areas in the Shiite communities, but everywhere, in all communities for the Iraqi people."
The same day, Central Command spokesman Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks was asked the same question. His answer was also somewhat vague.
"As time goes on, the physical places where we are free of Iraqi regime influence and are able to conduct operations, begin to provide the humanitarian assistance … we believe that in due time, there will be an end of hostilities," Brooks said.
The blunt-spoken Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, responded to a similar query earlier in the week.
"That's a tough question. And my guess is, it would be later rather than sooner, simply because it's a big country," the secretary said. "I don't think it would necessarily hinge on Saddam Hussein."
To date, Rumsfeld has provided the most specific list of goals for the campaign. He issued it on March 21, two days into the war. They were:
While Saddam's regime has been declared ended, resistance continues and no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
However, facilities used by the terror group Ansar al-Islam in northern Iraq have been destroyed, and there are reports that intelligence recovered there pointed to operatives around the world. The oil fields have been secured and most of the relatively few oil fires extinguished quickly. Meetings toward creating a postwar administration are scheduled to start next week.
But creating the conditions for representative government — which are not present at this time, given the rampant looting in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk — is a more complicated task to accomplish or even define.
If defining victory proves difficult in Iraq, it will not be the first time — for the United States or others.
More than a year after the fall of Kabul, fighting in Afghanistan continues, well outside the spotlight. U.S. bombers killed 11 civilians in an accidental bombing there this week. Two U.S. special forces soldiers were killed in an ambush there late last month.
After NATO fought to protect Kosovar Albanians from Serbs in 1999 in Kosovo, its peacekeepers waged a quiet, dangerous fight to protect Serbs from Kosovars. Russia fought a war in Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, only to return in 1999; it is still fighting there.
The "end" of the Gulf War in 1991 was only the beginning of two futile uprisings and a series of minor bombings and major waves of airstrikes — in some ways it was just the prelude to the U.S. invasion last month.
The Vietnam War "ended" in 1973 with a treaty that brought "peace with honor." Two years later, more Marines died as the North Vietnamese swept through the south, the U.S. embassy was evacuated and the communist victory was made complete.
Even the Korean War, which is clearly "over," has never formally ended. Fighting was suspended by a cease-fire in 1953, but the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas is a legacy of the lack of an official peace treaty.
By Jarrett Murphy