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Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

June 13, 2006 Fox News
BAGHDAD, Iraq - In a whirlwind trip that came as a surprise to all but about
a half-dozen presidential aides, President Bush went to Iraq Tuesday for a
face to face visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which he
pledged continuing U.S. support for the emerging democracy.

In an effort to bolster the newly-formed government and discuss the next
steps in trying to shore up Iraqi security after three years of war, Bush
told the prime minister that United States stands with him and the new

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

"I appreciate you recognize the fact that the future of your country is in
your hands," Bush said. "I appreciate your commitment to representing the
people of Iraq."

In response, al-Maliki said Iraq has "no choice but to succeed and we will
defeat terrorism."

"Today, with the grace of God, after getting rid of the dictatorship,
violence, terrorism, oppression, absolute power and the ruling party, our
country became one where all Iraqis can live in equality and freedom. This
is the first time that we in Iraq have such freedom, the freedom of press,
political freedom and a diverse government.

"This is the first time that we in Iraq, have a permanent constitution voted
on by the Iraqi people. This is the first time we have a government we
formed with our own free will, by getting together and participating in the
rebuilding effort. In this diversified government, chosen freely by the
Iraqi people, we are determined to succeed," al-Maliki said.

The president also went to Iraq to show his support for U.S. troops, whose
deployments, he noted, have been long and tough.

"I thank you all very much for your service to our country. Your sacrifice
is noble and your sacrifice is important," he said in remarks received
enthusiastically by U.S. forces inside Baghdad's heavily-guarded Green Zone.

Bush praised the forces for the air strike six days ago that killed terror
leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"Our military will stay on the offense. We will continue to hunt down people
like Mr. Zarqawi and bring them to justice," he said to thunderous cheers.

The president, who was already on his way home by early afternoon Eastern
time, arrived in Baghdad at 8:08 a.m. EDT, or 4:08 p.m. local time. It was
the second surprise visit he's made to the country in the past three years.
Last time, Bush went to visit U.S. troops on Thanksgiving in 2003. At that
time, his visit wasn't announced until after he left. This time, his arrival
was reported after he touched down in the Green Zone.

Only a handful of aides knew of the trip as the president had been speaking
since last week about hosting a Camp David retreat where the president, his
Cabinet and his national security and military team were supposed to hold a
teleconference Tuesday with al-Maliki and his Cabinet. The two-day retreat
provided cover for Bush to travel secretly and for al-Maliki and his Cabinet
to arrive in the Green Zone for the meeting.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who joined the president, told reporters
aboard Air Force One that the trip was planned over the past month by a
small group of six White House aides he described as a "very, very close
circle of people."

He said that Bush had wanted to come to Iraq as soon as the final positions
in al-Maliki's government - the ministers of defense and interior - were
chosen. Had those posts been filled sooner, Bush would have made the trip
several months earlier, Bartlett said.

"When you're dealing with issues of enormous consequence, the security of
our country, the security of the Middle East and the world, and you're
making such monumental decisions, its critically important that you're able
to meet with the new leader, confer with the leader, who you're going to be
making those decisions with," Bartlett said. "We are committed to the
success of the new government and the Maliki plan that he is outlining."

White House officials said the president wanted to meet face-to-face with
the prime minister to size him up and assure him of U.S. support. The
message that he wants to send to the Iraqi government is "we stand with you.
What you're doing is important," said the aides.

Bush told the troops after meeting with Iraqi Cabinet officials that he
"came away with the distinct impression that they're unified in serving the
people of Iraq." He added that the job is now to help the prime minister and
the government restore agricultural and health service and rebuild civil
society so people have confidence in a new Iraq. He said he was confident
that the new government respects the rights and dignity of the Iraqi people.

Bush also told al-Maliki that he was "impressed by the strength of your
character and your desire to succeed and I am impressed by your strategy."

Bartlett said that Bush had invited the Iraqi premier to visit the White
House, but the timing had not yet been finalized.

The trip signifies how much faith the Bush administration has in the new
Iraqi government's ability to get things done. Al-Maliki has won U.S.
admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence,
promote national reconciliation and accelerate reconstruction efforts and
restore essential services such as electricity.

Al-Maliki also announced that 75,000 Iraqi and coalition troops are being
deployed in Baghdad to institute the prime minister's new security plan in
the capital. Al-Maliki was said to have told Bush during their meeting that
he will show "no mercy" to terrorists.

The plan also includes a curfew and a ban on personal weapons in the city.
Roads were to be secured, raids against insurgent hideouts launched and air
strikes called.

Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharrawi, the commander of public order forces under the
Interior Ministry, said al-Maliki's plan would be the biggest operation of
its kind in Baghdad since the U.S. handed over sovereignty to Iraq in 2004.

Bush stayed in Iraq for five hours only, a length of time necessitated by
the high security precautions that needed to be executed in a precarious
venue. Even the president's arrival was cautiously orchestrated. Air Force
One landed at a semi-deserted airstrip a good distance away from the main
terminal in Baghdad.

Bartlett said the president sat up in the cockpit for the landing, which
included a steep, rapid banking move and then a very quick descent. He
assured reporters that Bush was not at the controls despite his National
Guard pilot training. Bush and his crew then boarded a convoy of Nighthawk
passenger helicopters to take them about six minutes to the center of the

Everyone on the helicopters was in body armor except for the White House
aides, who wore business suits but no armor. Bartlett had earlier said the
president would not wear body armor. In the Green Zone, a line of Suburbans
and other SUVs waited for the short drive to the Republican Palace, former
home of the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority and now the
temporary U.S. Embassy.

Joining Bush on Air Force One were Bartlett, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten,
Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, Press Secretary Tony Snow and National
Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Joining them on the ground in Iraq were
U.S. Ambassador Zal Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, head of the
Multinational Force in Iraq.

The group arrived at the palace where an American and an Iraqi flag had been
arrayed next to the entrance to the hallway leading to the offices, where
al-Maliki and one of his aides stood in anticipation of Bush's arrival.

Bush swept into the room where he met al-Maliki with his entourage and
Secret Service in tow. He walked up to al-Maliki, who had been informed
about five minutes before Bush's arrival that he was to have a special
guest, and shook the prime minister's hand as the cameras flashed.

Al-Maliki said, "Good to see you," while putting his open hand to his heart,
a gesture of appreciation. Bush responded, "Thanks for having me." They
stood in the hallway for another minute and then disappeared into one of the
palace offices.

The president also held meetings with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and
Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Afterward, Barlett said Bush "came
out of it with a very positive reaction."

Back at Camp David, other officials, including Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and CIA
Director Michael Hayden, were speaking by video conference as planned. Rice
and Secretary Don Rumsfeld appeared on Capitol Hill later in the afternoon
for private meetings with Senate and House members.

Rice did not speak about any upcoming measures that will be taken in the
coming months, but said the meeting of the two Cabinets was "exciting" and

Upon return, Air Force One was to stop in England for refueling. Bush was
expected to brief congressional leaders on his trip on Wednesday afternoon.

Bush's departure from Camp David Monday night had required some
surreptitious behavior on the president's part. While dining with officials,
the president excused himself from after-dinner discussion around 7:45 p.m.
EDT, telling his guests that he was "losing altitude" and wanted to read in
bed a little before falling asleep. By 8 p.m. when the dinner wrapped up,
Bush was already on his way to Andrews Air Force Base, and Air Force One
departed at 9:07 pm EDT.

Tuesday's trip came as Bush is trying to recapture support for the Iraq war
amid a positive week of news that included Zarqawi's death and the filling
of the most important seats in Iraq's Cabinet.

Anxiety about the war has been driving down Bush's poll numbers and causing
Republican anxiety about holding control of Congress in the November

The president's critics said they hoped the president would come up with a
U.S. exit strategy after his visit. "Maybe he'll develop up a plan that will
show us a way out of this quagmire," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

But Republican supporters of the president said Tuesday's trip symbolizes
progress being made in Iraq and the need to stay the course.

"I think the president is doing exactly the right thing today. ... Sending a
powerful signal to the Iraqi people that we are with you in the War on
Terror, we are going to support this government that you have elected and we
are going to win the War on Terror together," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra,
R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

"It's just dynamite," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who returned from
Iraq on Monday night and noted he would have stayed there to catch a ride
back on Air Force One if he'd known the president was going to be there.

Inhofe, who's been to Iraq 11 times since 2003, said he met with Iraqi
officials, who demonstrated some of the training received by the 264,000
Iraqi troops. He said he was told that when 11 divisions - or 325,000 troops
are trained - the Iraqis will want to take over security for themselves,
though that does not mean U.S. troops will leave completely.

"It's a huge success story over there. I just don't understand why the media
don't get it," he said, adding that al-Maliki's security adviser told him
that the Iraqis are "getting very close to the time" when they will be in a
position to take control of their security.

FOX News' Wendell Goler, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press
contributed to this report.



Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM  Pacific

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