Cheney springs visit to ‘newest democracy’

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BAGHDAD — Vice President Dick Cheney yesterday staged a surprise visit to Iraq and today will attend the opening of Afghanistan’s new parliament as part of a six-nation Middle East tour aimed at promoting democracy.

“I’m not Jessica Simpson, but I’m glad to be here,” he told 650 Marines who had speculated that their surprise guest might be the popular singer. “It’s a privilege to be here, to stand on the ground of the world’s newest democracy, to be with so many men and women who helped make this history.”

The vice president’s visit was so secret that it surprised even Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

“I thought only the ambassador would be here,” the prime minster said through an interpreter after showing up for what he thought was a meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “Thank you, Mr. Vice President.”

This prompted laughter from Mr. Khalilzad and a droll chuckle from the vice president, who said: “Well, we surprised even the press corps.”

Indeed, reporters were not told until six hours after departing Washington on Saturday on Air Force Two that Mr. Cheney would be making his first visit to Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, when he was secretary of defense to the elder President Bush.

Mr. Cheney had never been to Baghdad, which was the first of three sites in the war-torn nation that he visited yesterday. He met with U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials, including President Jalal Talabani, to discuss the successful parliamentary elections last week.

Next he flew by helicopter to Al Taji air base, west of Baghdad, to watch U.S. and Iraqi troops conduct military drills. Finally, he flew on a C-17 military transport plane to Al Asad air base, a desolate stretch of desert near the border with Syria, for a speech to Marines in an open-ended hangar.

“We’re a long way from Washington, and I can’t imagine being in better company than I am right now,” Mr. Cheney said. “I’ve come with a message from home: Americans are grateful for your service; they support your mission; we’re proud of each and every one of you.”

Afterward, the vice president held a round-table discussion with 30 troops who have seen a lot of military action in Iraq. When he opened up the discussion to questions, Cpl. Bradley Warren was the first to speak.

“From our perspective,” the Marine said, “we don’t see much as far as gains. We’re looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains. I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain — how Iraq’s looking.”

“Well, Iraq’s looking good,” Mr. Cheney replied. “I think we’ve turned the corner, if you will. I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we’ll see that the year ‘05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq.”

Marine Cpl. R.P. Zapella, asked: “Sir, what are the benefits of doing all this work to get Iraq on its feet?”

Mr. Cheney spoke about a democratically elected Iraq that is unified, capable of defending itself and no longer a base for terrorists or a threat to its neighbors. “We believe all that’s possible,” he said.

The vice president also talked in general terms about reducing U.S. troop levels as Iraqis “take on more and more responsibility.”

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