- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2003

President Bush yesterday swooped into Baghdad for a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit with U.S. troops and, with a tear running down his cheek, said their countrymen “pray for your safety and your strength as you continue to defend America.”

The hundreds of stunned soldiers, standing on chairs and tables, cheered wildly at the president’s surprise arrival.

“I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere,” Mr. Bush deadpanned. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner.”

Mr. Bush had sneaked out of his Crawford, Texas, ranch in extraordinary secrecy Wednesday night to ride in an unmarked car through Waco traffic to an airport where the presidential plane sat idling. He departed at 8:25 p.m. EST for the 11-hour trip to Baghdad by way of Washington.

Air Force One — which flew in radio silence with running lights off and fighter jets on either side — landed under a sliver of a moon at Baghdad International Airport about 5:30 p.m. local time yesterday (9:30 a.m. EST).

None of the 600 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division had any idea that the president would be guest of honor at their turkey and ham dinner in Bob Hope Dining Hall at the Baghdad airport.

U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer and ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the scheduled speakers, had greeted the restless soldiers, who had waited for dinner for about an hour.

Mr. Bremer then said he also brought a greeting from the president, and that the most “senior” U.S. official among them should read it.

He turned toward the side of the stage and asked, “Is there anyone back there who’s more senior than us?”

That’s when Mr. Bush emerged from under radar-reflective camouflage netting and the soldiers, packed into the small hall, erupted into thunderous applause.

The president clearly was moved by the reception, his eyes welling with tears. His voice choked with emotion several times during his short speech.

“You’re engaged in a difficult mission,” Mr. Bush told the soldiers. “Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will. They hope we will run.

“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,” the president said.

Those words drew a standing ovation and shouts of “hoo-ah,” the all-purpose Army chant expressing approval.

The president’s top aides had planned the secret trip for weeks. Its smooth execution — the president was on the ground in Iraq for only 2½ hours — upstaged a scheduled visit to Iraq this weekend by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

First lady Laura Bush learned only hours before her husband left, and the president’s parents, who arrived in Texas after their son had departed for Baghdad, did not know about the trip.

The president was expected to return to Waco by 6 a.m. EST today.

The armed forces have “answered a great call” and are “participating in a historic moment in world history,” Mr. Bush told the troops before helping to dish up turkey, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and corn for them.

“I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we’re proud of you and America stands solidly behind you,” he said.

“You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don’t have to face them in our own country.”

Decked out in an Army jacket with a 1st Armored Division patch, Mr. Bush worked the room after his remarks, shaking hands with each soldier and posing for pictures.

The soldiers were ecstatic at the visit, the first by a president to Iraq and also unprecedented in its secrecy and security precautions, White House aides said.

“I’ve never been so surprised,” said Pfc. Stephen Henderson, 19, of Inglewood, Calif., an Army infantryman in the 1st Armored Division. “I had no idea, not a clue. I feel uplifted. I almost forgot I was even here.”

“I never thought he would be here,” said Pfc. Mark Hansen, 29, of Hillsborough, N.J., an Army field artillery surveyor: “I’m proud to have him as the commander in chief. You can’t beat it.”

Staff Sgt. Gerrie Stokes Holloman, 34, of Baltimore said Mr. Bush’s brief visit greatly boosted morale.

“It shows that he cares about us and is thinking about us,” the 1st Armored Division soldier said. “It’s not easy being here. Every day you’re over here, you feel depressed anyway. But it’s especially hard on a holiday.

“The support and encouragement we get from our leadership builds a bond with our soldiers,” she added.

Mr. Bush became the first U.S. commander in chief to visit a front-line war zone since President Nixon went to Vietnam in 1969. Dwight D. Eisenhower, as president-elect, visited Korean battlefronts in December 1952 and President Johnson made two wartime trips to Vietnam.

White House officials said no one there could identify another time that a president had slipped out of the country unannounced since President Roosevelt traveled secretly to the Yalta conference in February 1945.

Mr. Bush also met yesterday with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, Baghdad’s mayor and city council, and with top U.S. commanders.

In his speech to troops, the president said: “I have a message for the Iraqi people: You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever.

“The United States and our coalition will help you, help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We’ll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis.

“We will stay until the job is done,” he said to applause.

Members of the Governing Council who met with Mr. Bush included Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress; Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader who is this month’s council president; Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shi’ite Muslim physician who returned from exile in Britain; and Raja Khozai, a Shi’ite who directs a maternity hospital in the southern city of Diwaniya.

Mr. Bush “made a very important statement [about] staying the course in Iraq and declaring in Baghdad that the United States is here to finish the job,” Mr. Chalabi said.

The president’s message to the council members, Mr Rubaie said, was: “I believe in the people of Iraq. They will make democracy happen.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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