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Bush surprises troops in Iraq

Makes secret flight to Baghdad, 2 1/2-hour visit under high security

BAGHDAD -- President Bush swept into Iraq yesterday on a stunning, unannounced Thanksgiving visit to US troops carried out under extraordinary security and secrecy.

In a perilous flight zone because of missile attacks, Bush touched down at Baghdad International Airport in Air Force One under cover of darkness and stayed for 2 1/2 hours before heading back. He returned to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington just after midnight today, the AP reported.

Bush told a roaring crowd in a hangar packed with nearly 600 soldiers that he was there to thank them for their bravery and to assure them that his administration would not withdraw their troops, despite the soaring violence and terrorist attacks that have plagued the country for the past month.

"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator, and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he told the troops, as soldiers leaped to their feet and erupted in cheers. "We will win because we will stay on the offensive," added Bush, who shed tears during his speech.

The trip into perhaps the world's most hazardous airport was planned with intense secrecy. For the first time since being elected president three years ago, Bush traveled in a civilian car in regular traffic in Waco, Texas, to reach Air Force One, in order to keep secret his departure.

He flew in that plane to Andrews Air Force Base, where he joined a small traveling press corps and switched planes. The handpicked journalists traveling with him were told that the plane would turn back to Washington if word leaked out that the president was on his way to Baghdad.

Only six Baghdad-based journalists -- including this reporter -- were invited to the event in the Iraqi capital, billed by coalition officials as a turkey dinner with US administrator to Iraq L. Paul Bremer III and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of American troops in the country.

Only a handful of top coalition officials appeared to know about the president's trip, which was kept secret until Air Force One had left Iraqi airspace.

The plane roared over the hangar as it touched down in Baghdad. Yet none in the huge room suspected who was on board.

A few minutes later, Bremer took to the podium and welcomed the troops to the celebration, telling them he had a Thanksgiving letter from Bush to read to them. Turning to Sanchez, he asked: "Is there anyone more senior than us here to read the letter?"

At that moment, Bush appeared from behind a netting backdrop. The room exploded in euphoria. Setting the evening's folksy tone, Bush waited for the roars to subside before saying: "I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere. Thanks for inviting me to dinner."

Bush's message to Iraqis themselves was equally clear. With three senior Governing Council members in the audience, he said Iraqis had to choose to join the political process or risk being cut out altogether. "You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom," Bush said. "The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever." His trip, the first by a US president to Baghdad, appeared to be an effort to boost morale among the troops and underscore his commitment to the Iraq effort amid mounting attacks and US casualties. More than five dozen US troops have been killed by hostile fire in November, more than any other month since Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1.. Alarmed at the violence, administration officials scrambled two weeks ago to redraft the plan to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government. The plan allows for a new government to take power in June next year, and to end the US civilian occupation by July 1.

During the hour before Bush's arrival, Governing Council members who had gathered in the hangar -- in the belief they were there to see Bremer and Sanchez -- said there were urgent political problems. Those included a decision by the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, to reject the new political plan unveiled two weeks ago.

From his base in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf on Wednesday, Sistani said direct elections were needed for the new assembly.

"This is very serious," council member Muwaffak Al Rubai said before Bush's arrival. "Sistani is asking for a fundamental right. You cannot bypass the people."

During the past few weeks, military commanders have launched the fiercest offensive against Iraqi insurgents since major combat was declared over on May 1. An hour or so before Bush appeared, the commander of the soldiers controlling Baghdad said he was convinced the so-called Operation Iron Hammer was beginning to work.

"Attacks are down significantly. We've had a lot of great feedback," said Brigadier General Martin E. Dempsey, whose First Armored Division presented Bush with an Army sports jacket after he landed. "The operation has allowed the soldiers to feel like they are winning."

At least for a few hours last night, questions over Bush's postwar plans appeared to be forgotten. Council members rushed to the podium to kiss Bush on both cheeks, in traditional Middle Eastern style, as he ended his address. Bush then worked the room, shaking soldiers' hands and posing for photographs, seemingly unhurried, despite the enormous security risks of his being in Baghdad. He later met with four of the 24 council members.

On the flight back to the United States, Bush told reporters that he made his decision to go to Iraq while thinking about how hard it must be for soldiers to spend the holiday far from home and family. "It's got to be a lonely moment for them," the president said, according to the Associated Press. "I thought it was important to send that message that we care for them [the troops] and we support them strongly, that we erase any doubts in their minds as to whether or not the people stand with them."

Colin Nickerson of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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