BAGHDAD, Iraq – Six American governors made a surprise visit to Iraq to take a look at the reconstruction effort Tuesday, talking with Iraqi shop owners about the problems of daily life and greeting American troops.
It was the first visit by governors to Iraq since the American occupation began in April, and it comes as the U.S. military is carrying out a rotation of troops -- a change the governors said would bring a large number of reservists and National Guard troops from their states.
At the former Saddam Hussein palace that now serves as the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition, the delegation -- led by Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne (search) and including the governors of New York, Minnesota, Oregon, Hawaii and Louisiana -- met with Iraq's top American administrator, L. Paul Bremer, military chiefs and members of the Iraqi Governing Council. In the evening, the governors had dinner with troops from their states.
With violence persisting in Iraq, the trip was kept secret -- journalists were not allowed to report on their arrival on a C130 military jet until hours later. Before leaving Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (search) told his security aides he was heading for Washington.
Less than an hour before the governors' plane landed at Baghdad airport, a truck packed with explosives detonated outside a police station in the town of Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of the capital, killing at least 50 Iraqis and wounding dozens more. It was the eighth vehicle bombing in Iraq this year.
"You are now facing the same evil terrorists who now explode bombs in front of Iraqi police stations who 2 years ago attacked our towers in New York City killing thousands of residents," New York Gov. George Pataki (search) told a group of Iraqi journalists.
Four Republicans -- Kempthorne, Pawlenty, Pataki and Linda Lingle (search) of Hawaii -- and two Democrats -- Kathleen Blanco (search) of Louisiana and Ted Kulongoski (search) of Oregon-- were on the two-day visit. It was organized by the Pentagon, according to the U.S.-led coalition press office.
In Washington, however, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he couldn't recall inviting the governors to Iraq -- or whether it was at taxpayers' expense. "I may very well have. I've been inviting a lot of people," he told reporters.
"I've encouraged members of the Cabinet to go -- to go to Afghanistan and Iraq," Rumsfeld said. "I've encouraged a number of people to go over there and participate and assist the ministries. And I'm delighted that some of them are there."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the governors were selected based on "geographical and bipartisan diversity."
The governors join a long list of politicians, dignitaries and celebrities who have visited Iraq, including President Bush -- whose Thanksgiving visit was kept under even tighter secrecy, -- Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles, the prime ministers of Denmark and Poland, about half the U.S. Congress, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, before his election as California governor.
Kempthorne said the six governors would meet with President Bush to discuss their impressions.
Soon after their arrival, the six governors -- dressed in flak jackets -- were taken in a convoy to a busy commercial street in the Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada to visit two stores, shaking hands with Iraqis who crowded the sidewalks. In a fabric store, accountant Saad Yaaqub complained to the governors about electricity problems.
Outside, troops blocked traffic and an Apache helicopter hovered low. Iraqi onlookers tried to figure out who the sudden visitors were. "Is that Bush?" one man called out.
At a plastic foam factory in a southern Baghdad neighborhood, one employee complained to Pataki about the brusque and heavy-handed methods of U.S. soldiers patrolling Baghdad. "I'm so proud to hear you complain to me the same way that a New Yorker would," Pataki told the man through a translator.
The U.S. military is carrying out a major troop rotation, pulling out about 130,000 soldiers and replacing them with about 100,000 others.
Kempthorne said the rotation meant 35 percent of U.S. forces would be reservists and National Guard -- including many from the six governors' states.
"If the Guard is going to be this replacement component, there will have to be guarantees they have the training, the resources and the equipment and everything they need to be successful," Kulongoski said.