Bush makes surprise visit to Baghdad, meets with prime minister

BAGHDAD, Iraq – President Bush assured Iraqis in a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday that the United States stands with them and their new government. “It’s in our interest that Iraq succeed,” he said, seated alongside newly named Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

But he also emphasized, both in his meeting with al-Maliki and in an address to U.S. troops, that the wartorn country’s future is in the hands of the new Iraqi unity government.

“And our job is to help them succeed and we will,” Bush told American forces as he wrapped up his unannounced visit .

The dramatic trip came as Bush sought to bolster support for Iraq’s fledgling government and U.S. war policy at home.

“I’ve come to not only look you in the eye. I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word,” Bush told al-Maliki.

“I’ve come today to personally show our nation’s commitment to a free Iraq,” Bush told cheering American troops assigned to the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone, the heavily fortified Green Zone is where Iraq’s government meets and the U.S. and British embassies are based and a frequent target of insurgent attacks.

“My message to the Iraqi people is this: seize the moment, seize the opportunity to develop a government of and by and for the people,” he said. “I come away from here believing that the will is strong.”

After his talk to the U.S. troops there, Bush flew by helicopter back to Air Force One under the cover of darkness.

Bush traveled to Baghdad less than a week after a U.S. air strike killed terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It was his second unannounced visit since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Al-Maliki, who didn’t know Bush was coming until five minutes before they met, said that Iraq was “determined to succeed, and we have to defeat terrorists and defeat all the hardships.”

“God willing, all the suffering will be over. And all the soldiers will return to their country with our gratitude for what they have offered, the sacrifice,” al-Maliki said through a translator.

Bush made it clear, however, that a U.S. military presence would continue for awhile.

“I have expressed our country’s desire to work with you, but I appreciate you recognize the fact that the future of the country is in your hands,” Bush said.

“The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself,” he added.

“I am impressed with the cabinet you have assembled,” Bush said.

Bush waited until al-Maliki filled the final positions in his government before making the trip. Those posts were filled last Thursday.

The two leaders were seated at a long table in a room with two large television screens, one showing Bush and al-Maliki and the other showing Bush’s aides and advisers at Camp David, Md.

Bush was flanked at the table by al-Maliki and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Bush met with al-Maliki in the palace once used by Saddam but which now serves temporarily as the U.S. Embassy.

“Good to see you,” exclaimed al-Maliki as they met. “Thanks for having me,” Bush responded. They smiled broadly and shook hands vigorously in the high-domed marble room.

The trip was known only to a handful of aides and a small number of journalists sworn to secrecy because of obvious security threats for Bush and members of his entourage.

“Obviously, when you’re entering a situation where the enemy is so active, we have to be extra cautious,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said.

The prime minister had been invited to the embassy on the pretense of taking part in a video conference with Bush, supposedly at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. The videoconference went on as scheduled, but with Bush appearing alongside al-Maliki.

What had been announced as a two-day meeting at Camp David was part of a ruse to conceal Bush’s Baghdad trip and a cover story to bring al-Maliki and his cabinet to the green zone.

Bush sat in the cockpit of Air Force One when the plane landed at Baghdad’s airport after the 11-hour overnight flight, Bartlett said. The president wore a 25-pound flak jacket during the helicopter flight from the airport to the Green Zone, Bartlett said.

Air Force One landed in hazy daylight at Baghdad Airport, where the temperature was above 100 degrees. Bush transferred to a helicopter for the six-minute ride to the green zone.

Bush had met with American troops at Thanksgiving 2003 in a visit to Baghdad confined to the airport and limited to several hours after dark. That trip was kept secret until Bush was safely in the air on the way home.

Bush faces increasing pressure at home to begin troop withdrawals. He has said cutbacks depend on Iraq’s ability to provide for its own security.

Bartlett said the trip had been in the works for several weeks but was delayed until al-Maliki filled out his cabinet with his national security team last week.

Al-Maliki has won U.S. admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence, promote national reconciliation, accelerate reconstruction efforts and restore essential services such as electricity.

Secrecy aside, the meeting was intended to strengthen ties between the Bush administration and al-Maliki’s ministries, Bartlett said.

Bush’s aides and advisers had expected the president to be at the table with them for the videoconference. Instead, they saw him from Baghdad. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney were in on the secret.

First lady Laura Bush announced Bush’s trip to a surprised crowd assembled in Villanova, Pa., for a fundraiser for Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. She told the GOP donors she is “very thrilled and very proud” of her husband.

Tuesday’s trip came as Bush struggled for solid footing for his presidency, rocked by the Iraq war and other problems. About 2,500 members of the military have died since the war began in March 2003.

War anxiety has been the driving force behind Bush’s plunge in the polls and a cause of Republican distress about holding control of Congress in the November mid-tem elections.

Approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dipped to 33 percent, a new low, and his overall job approval rating was 35 percent in a new AP-Ipsos Poll.

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