Bush visits soldiers in Iraq

In surprise trip, president gives a pep talk, serves Thanksgiving Day dinner

Hussein forces `testing our will'

2 1/2 -hour stay includes meeting with members of Governing Council

November 28, 2003|By Paul West and Tom Bowman | Paul West and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush paid a lightning visit to U.S. troops near Baghdad yesterday and assured the people of Iraq that the United States would stay in their country "until the job is done."

On a surprise Thanksgiving Day trip cloaked in secrecy, Bush met briefly with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, and with Baghdad municipal officials and U.S. commanders. But the centerpiece of Bush's 2 1/2 -hour visit was a pep talk to American troops, who greeted their unexpected visitor with astonished whoops.

Bush thanked them for "defending the American people from danger."

Eyes beaming, he told 600 soldiers in a mess hall at Baghdad International Airport that remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime "are testing our will. They hope we will run" in the face of repeated, deadly attacks on U.S. forces and Iraqi civilians.

But the United States won't "retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush said, prompting another round of whooping and applause.

The president, who left Texas on Wednesday night, immediately headed back to the United States. During his short visit, he never left the immediate area around the airport, a relatively secure zone.

The unannounced trip was a public relations bonanza for a president whose Iraq policy has divided the public and generated sharp criticism from Democrats vying to oppose him in next year's election. His trip preceded by one day a scheduled visit by Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who spent Thanksgiving with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Bush is making the fight against terrorism a major focus of his re-election campaign, and his eight-minute speech to troops included familiar lines on that theme. He told the men and women that they "are defeating terrorists in Iraq so that we don't have to face them in our own country."

Delivering those words just outside the Iraqi capital gave them a special resonance, especially as they came less than eight months after the fall of Hussein's regime and with deadly fighting continuing in the country. It was the first visit to Iraq by an American president.

The trip recalled other presidential holiday visits to war zones, from President Lyndon B. Johnson's brief stop at the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay just before Christmas in 1967, to President Bill Clinton's Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops in Kosovo in 1999.

In 1990, Bush's father paid a Thanksgiving visit to U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, stationed there as part of the buildup for the Persian Gulf war that began early the next year.

En route home to the United States yesterday, Bush told reporters that he decided to make the trip after thinking about how hard it must be for soldiers to spend the holiday far from their homes and families. "It's got to be a lonely moment for them," Bush said. "I thought it was important to send that message that we care for them and we support them strongly, that we erase any doubts in their minds as to whether or not the people stand with them. ... Having seen the reaction of those troops, you know it was the right thing to do."

In his prepared speech to the troops, Bush directed remarks to the Iraqi public, urging them to "seize the moment and rebuild your great country based on human dignity and freedom."

"The regime of Saddam Hussein," Bush said, "is gone forever."

But with Hussein remaining at large more than seven months after his government fell, the extreme secrecy and tight security that surrounded Bush's visit was a reminder that the country remains extremely dangerous.

Bush said the United States and its coalition allies would help bring members of the deposed regime "to justice" and would "stay until the job is done."

There are about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the administration plans to cut that number to about 100,000 by spring. There are about 24,000 troops from other countries in Iraq, about half of them British - less than the 30,000 the administration had hoped for by the end of this year.

The administration wants to train and arm more than 200,000 Iraqis by next fall as part of a security force. About 120,000 Iraqis have been selected, but not all have been trained, according to U.S. defense officials.

Troops in the dark

Bush's arrival yesterday at the Bob Hope Dining Hall, where the soldiers had been waiting for more than an hour to eat, was preceded by hurried remarks from Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. civilian administrator.

In a bit of byplay with Sanchez, Bremer said he was prepared to read a Thanksgiving proclamation from the president. He paused and wondered aloud if there was anyone backstage "more senior than us" to read the statement.

With that, Bush, wearing an open-necked royal blue shirt and a light gray Army exercise jacket, emerged to an enormous chorus of cheers from the stunned soldiers.

Stepping to the microphone, Bush quipped, "I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere. Thank you for inviting me to dinner."

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