BAGHDAD, Iraq -- President Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Baghdad Thursday, flying secretly to violence-scarred Iraq to thank U.S. forces for serving there. It was the first trip ever by an American president to Iraq -- a mission tense with concern about his safety.
The president's plane -- its lights darkened and windows closed to minimize chances of making it a target -- landed under a crescent moon at Baghdad International Airport. Bush flew in on the plane he most often uses, and White House officials went to extraordinary lengths to keep the trip a secret, fearing its disclosure would prompt terrorist attempts to kill him.
While here, Bush spoke with soldiers from the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division at an airport mess hall. "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so we don't have to face them in our own country. You are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful," Bush told some 600 soldiers who were stunned and delighted by his appearance. Terrorists are testing America's resolve, Bush said, and "they hope we will run." "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," the president said, prompting a standing ovation and cheers.
Bush spent about two and a half hours on the ground, limiting his visit to the airport dinner with U.S. forces. The troops had been told that the VIP guests would be L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq. Wearing an exercise jacket with a 1st Armored Division patch, Bush stood in a chow line and dished out sweet potatoes and corn for Thanksgiving dinner and posed with a platter of a fresh-baked turkey. The news of Bush's trip was not released until he was in the air on the way back to the United States. "If this breaks while we're in the air we're turning around," White House communications director Dan Bartlett told reporters on the flight to Baghdad.
In a ruse staged in the name of security, the White House had put out word that Bush would be spending Thanksgiving at his ranch in Crawford, Texas with Mrs. Bush and his parents and other family members. Even the dinner menu was announced. First lady Laura Bush, preparing a Thanksgiving Day dinner, was not told until Tuesday or Wednesday. Bush's parents, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, were invited to his ranch for the holiday but were not informed. Instead, Bush slipped away from his home without notice Wednesday evening and flew to Washington to pick up aides and a handful of reporters sworn to secrecy. Plans called for the trip to be abandoned if word had leaked out in advance. Bush's father visited U.S. troops at a desert outpost in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day 1990, in the runup to the Gulf War. The first President Bush had been the first U.S. president to visit a war zone since President Nixon went to Vietnam in 1969. As for Bush, Jr taking the risk of a trip to Baghdad, Bartlett said it was appropriate for the president to visit troops on Thanksgiving. "It is also appropriate that the president travel in a way that his safety and security will not be compromised," he said. Security fears were heightened by an attack last Saturday in which a missile struck a DHL cargo plane, forcing it to make an emergency landing at the airport with its wing aflame. Another factor was regular attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. More than five dozen U.S. troops were killed by hostile fire in November, more than any other month since the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1. Since operations began, nearly 300 U.S. service members have died of hostile action, including 183 since May 1. Early this week, a U.S. military official, Col. William Darley, said attacks peaked at more than 40 per day about two weeks ago and have since dropped to about 30 per day.
The violence persisted Thursday as the president was en route here. Insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Italian mission in Baghdad, damaging the building but causing no injuries, the U.S. military said. Also, a U.S. military convoy came under attack on the main highway west of Baghdad near the town of Abu Ghraib, witnesses said. And in the northern city of Mosul, unidentified gunmen shot dead an Iraqi police sergeant, said Brig. Gen. Muwaffaq Mohammed.
[information by Associated Press and Reuters]