- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

President Bush yesterday made a surprise visit to Baghdad to tell new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki face to face that “the future of this country is in your hands.”

“When Iraq succeeds in having a government of and by and for the people of Iraq, you will have dealt a serious blow to those who have a vision of darkness, who don’t believe in liberty, who are willing to kill the innocent in order to achieve a political objective,” said the president, traveling to Iraq less than a week after the U.S. military killed al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“I have come today to personally show our nation’s commitment to a free Iraq. My message to the Iraqi people is this: Seize the moment; seize this opportunity,” he said later in the day to U.S. troops in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.

Sneaking out of the Maryland mountain retreat of Camp David after telling his senior staff Monday night that he was tired and heading to bed, the president and a handful of top aides flew overnight and, unlike his last secret visit to Iraq’s capital on Thanksgiving 2003, landed in broad daylight at just after 4 p.m. Baghdad time.

Seated next to Mr. al-Maliki in the U.S. Embassy compound for a videoconference with U.S. military and administration officials gathered at Camp David, Mr. Bush said, “The decisions you and your Cabinet make will be determinate as to whether or not a country succeeds that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.”

Mr. Bush told the Iraqi leader, who on Thursday completed appointments to his new government, that he had come “not only to look you in the eye, I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word.”

Mr. al-Maliki, who didn’t know that Mr. Bush was coming until five minutes before they met, told Mr. Bush that the Iraqi Cabinet is determined to defeat the insurgents so U.S. and other forces can withdraw from Iraq.

“We are determined to succeed, and we have to defeat terrorists and defeat all the hardships,” he said through a translator. “God willing, all the suffering will be over. And all the soldiers will return to their country with our gratitude for what they have offered, the sacrifice. We are determined to succeed, and we have to defeat terrorism. Our country will stay united; it will stay strong.”

Mr. al-Maliki also expressed his country’s appreciation for U.S. efforts in Iraq, where about 2,500 troops have died in the war.

“I present our gratitude for those that have sacrificed themselves for the Iraqi people,” he said.

Despite the killing of Zarqawi, al Qaeda in Iraq this week announced a new leader and a wave of bombings hit the oil city of Kirkuk yesterday, killing 14 persons, as the terror group sought to prove the death of its leader will not stop its campaign of violence.

The president also told Mr. al-Maliki that he had heard reports that Iran was “interfering” in Iraq and said that had to stop, said Iraqi government sources who attended the talks.

Mr. Bush spent about five hours in Baghdad, and also met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, other national political leaders and U.S. troops.

Mr. Bush was to have been in Camp David for the videoconference with Mr. al-Maliki, but wanted to go to Iraq as soon as the final positions in Mr. al-Maliki’s government — the ministers of defense and interior — were chosen, said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. But the two-day meeting at Camp David was part of an elaborate ruse to conceal Mr. Bush’s Baghdad trip and a trick to bring Mr. al-Maliki and his Cabinet to the Green Zone.

On Capitol Hill yesterday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top generals yesterday briefed about 60 senators on the progress being made in Iraq and the president’s surprise visit. They also held a separate House briefing.

After the briefing, Mr. Rumsfeld said the senators did not discuss moving troops out of Iraq and repeated claims by Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki that the United States is “there to complete the mission.”

“The Iraqi government is improving and strengthening their security forces, and as they do so, we will continue to pass off responsibility to them,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that he will meet with generals and Iraqi officials “to discuss at what pace we will be able to draw down our forces, and it will all be done in a very orderly way.”

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the president’s trip “is likely to lead to phased redeployments this year and continuing in the next year.”

Democratic senators are working on several proposals to begin withdrawing troops, but senators leaving the Rice-Rumsfeld briefing stopped short of endorsing an amendment by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to withdraw troops by the end of this year.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he hadn’t seen the amendment, but wasn’t sure it was the right idea.

“Just to make a date without it being attached to what our plan is as to how you would succeed in leaving something better would not be the most appropriate way to go,” he said after leaving the briefing.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, said after the briefing that he would like to see a “sensible” withdrawal of troops, but noted that “it’s irresponsible to demand a timetable for drawing down our forces, because it must be based on the reality of what’s happening.”

Democratic leaders are working with Mr. Kerry to draft another amendment that calls for the “responsible redeployment” of troops starting this year. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, one of the Democrats working on the amendment, said she thought “the time has come for the Congress to express its will.”

• Christina Bellantoni and Amy Fagan contributed to this report.

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