- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

Cloaked in utmost secrecy and amid unprecedented security measures, President George W. Bush swooped in for a brief surprise visit to American troops in war-ravaged Iraq last Thursday.

In contrast to his much-publicized landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln last May 1 to declare the “end of major combat operations,” Mr. Bush’s Thanksgiving Day visit to Baghdad was planned and carried out in secrecy as attacks against American and coalition troops in the country continue to mount.

The 2-hour surprise trip was the first by an American president to Iraq. The president’s father, President George H.W. Bush, visited U.S. troops at a desert base in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving 1990, as coalition troops were massing up in preparation for Desert Storm, to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The previous August, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had ordered his troops to occupy the tiny oil-rich nation. Before that, the last presidential visit to a war zone was when President Nixon went to Vietnam in 1969.

The presidential visit was planned and carried out in the greatest of secrecy amid mounting security concerns in Iraq, where attacks against coalition forces have reached an all-time high of about 40 a day — with the deaths among American forces averaging almost two per day over the past month.

According to White House reports, the president left his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Wednesday night in an unmarked car and flew aboard Air Force One to Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington. There, the president transferred to an unmarked aircraft for the flight to Iraq.

The president was joined by a few close aides and journalists sworn to secrecy and proceeded to land at Baghdad International Airport. White House sources say the trip would have been canceled if word of the Iraq visit leaked out. Only last week forces opposed to the American occupation of Iraq fired a missile at a DHL courier aircraft, hitting an engine and forcing it to effect an emergency landing at Baghdad International, formerly Saddam International.

The president spent just over two hours on the ground, sharing Thanksgiving dinner with American troops and congratulating them for doing their part in defending the American people, before flying back to the United States. News of his visit to Iraq was announced only after the president had departed Iraq and was well on his way back to the U.S.

With critics of the war calling the situation in Iraq a quagmire and some even comparing it to Vietnam, Mr. Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq will carry him far in the polls. The Iraq visit will undoubtedly raise the president’s standing as the 2004 presidential race — now only 12 months away — gets under way.

However, his detractors will not miss a chance to accuse him of using his position as president and commander in chief to stage another media coup — as they did when he flew aboard a jet fighter to land on the carrier last May.

The president’s critics will question the real value of the visit in view of the associated risks. Aside from the visit’s magnificent public-relations value, there is little to justify risking the life of the president and those accompanying him.

When both the president’s father and Nixon before him undertook their visits, they met with thousands of troops. Because of security concerns, this ultrasecret visit allowed the president to address only about 600 soldiers.

In the days and weeks ahead, as political Washington starts to recover from overindulgence in turkey, gravy, stuffing, pumpkin pies and other Thanksgiving fare, questions of the real usefulness of the president’s Iraq visit will certainly be raised, argued and disputed.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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