BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a whirlwind trip that came as a surprise to all but about a half-dozen presidential aides, President Bush went to Iraq Tuesday for a face to face visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in which he pledged continuing U.S. support for the emerging democracy.
In an effort to bolster the newly-formed government and discuss the next steps in trying to shore up Iraqi security after three years of war, Bush told the prime minister that United States stands with him and the new government.
"I've come to not only look you in the eye," Bush told al-Maliki. "I also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word."
"I appreciate you recognize the fact that the future of your country is in your hands," Bush said. "I appreciate your committment to representing the people of Iraq."
In response, al-Maliki said Iraq has "no choice but to succeed and we will defeat terrorism."
"Today, with the grace of God, after getting rid of the dictatorship, violence, terrorism, oppression, absolute power and the ruling party, our country became one where all Iraqis can live in equality and freedom. This is the first time that we in Iraq have such freedom, the freedom of press, political freedom and a diverse government.
"This is the first time that we in Iraq, have a permanent constitution voted on by the Iraqi people. This is the first time we have a government we formed with our own free will, by getting together and participating in the rebuilding effort. In this diversified government, chosen freely by the Iraqi people, we are determined to succeed," al-Maliki said.
If You Were President: If you were president, what would you say to the prime minister of Iraq and American soldiers stationed there?
The president also went to Iraq to show his support for U.S. troops, whose deployments, he noted, have been long and tough.
"I thank you all very much for your service to our country. Your sacrifice is noble and your sacrifice is important," he said in remarks received enthusiastically by U.S. forces inside Baghdad's heavily-guarded Green Zone.
Bush praised the forces for the air strike six days ago that killed terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Our military will stay on the offense. We will continue to hunt down people like Mr. Zarqawi and bring them to justice," he said to thunderous cheers.
The president, who was already on his way home by early afternoon Eastern time, arrived in Baghdad at 8:08 a.m. EDT, or 4:08 p.m. local time. It was the second surprise visit he's made to the country in the past three years. Last time, Bush went to visit U.S. troops on Thanksgiving in 2003. At that time, his visit wasn't announced until after he left. This time, his arrival was reported after he touched down in the Green Zone.
Only a handful of aides knew of the trip as the president had been speaking since last week about hosting a Camp David retreat where the president, his Cabinet and his national security and military team were supposed to hold a teleconference Tuesday with al-Maliki and his Cabinet. The two-day retreat provided cover for Bush to travel secretly and for al-Maliki and his Cabinet to arrive in the Green Zone for the meeting.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who joined the president, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the trip was planned over the past month by a small group of six White House aides he described as a "very, very close circle of people."
He said that Bush had wanted to come to Iraq as soon as the final positions in al-Maliki's government — the ministers of defense and interior — were chosen. Had those posts been filled sooner, Bush would have made the trip several months earlier, Bartlett said.
"When you're dealing with issues of enormous consequence, the security of our country, the security of the Middle East and the world, and you're making such monumental decisions, its critically important that you're able to meet with the new leader, confer with the leader, who you're going to be making those decisions with," Bartlett said. "We are committed to the success of the new government and the Maliki plan that he is outlining."
White House officials said the president wanted to meet face-to-face with the prime minister to size him up and assure him of U.S. support. The message that he wants to send to the Iraqi government is "we stand with you. What you're doing is important," said the aides.
Bush told the troops after meeting with Iraqi Cabinet officials that he "came away with the distinct impression that they're unified in serving the people of Iraq." He added that the job is now to help the prime minister and the government restore agricultural and health service and rebuild civil society so people have confidence in a new Iraq. He said he was confident that the new government respects the rights and dignity of the Iraqi people.
Bush also told al-Maliki that he was "impressed by the strength of your character and your desire to succeed and I am impressed by your strategy."
Bartlett said that Bush had invited the Iraqi premier to visit the White House, but the timing had not yet been finalized.
The trip signifies how much faith the Bush administration has in the new Iraqi government's ability to get things done. Al-Maliki has won U.S. admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence, promote national reconciliation and accelerate reconstruction efforts and restore essential services such as electricity.
Al-Maliki also announced that 75,000 Iraqi and coalition troops are being deployed in Baghdad to institute the prime minister's new security plan in the capital. Al-Maliki was said to have told Bush during their meeting that he will show "no mercy" to terrorists.
The plan also includes a curfew and a ban on personal weapons in the city. Roads were to be secured, raids against insurgent hideouts launched and air strikes called.
Maj. Gen. Mahdi al-Gharrawi, the commander of public order forces under the Interior Ministry, said al-Maliki's plan would be the biggest operation of its kind in Baghdad since the U.S. handed over sovereignty to Iraq in 2004.
Bush stayed in Iraq for five hours only, a length of time necessitated by the high security precautions that needed to be executed in a precarious venue. Even the president's arrival was cautiously orchestrated. Air Force One landed at a semi-deserted airstrip a good distance away from the main terminal in Baghdad.
Bartlett said the president sat up in the cockpit for the landing, which included a steep, rapid banking move and then a very quick descent. He assured reporters that Bush was not at the controls despite his National Guard pilot training. Bush and his crew then boarded a convoy of Nighthawk passenger helicopters to take them about six minutes to the center of the city.
Everyone on the helicopters was in body armor except for the White House aides, who wore business suits but no armor. Bartlett had earlier said the president would not wear body armor. In the Green Zone, a line of Suburbans and other SUVs waited for the short drive to the Republican Palace, former home of the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority and now the temporary U.S. Embassy.
Joining Bush on Air Force One were Bartlett, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, Press Secretary Tony Snow and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Joining them on the ground in Iraq were U.S. Ambassador Zal Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, head of the Multinational Force in Iraq.
The group arrived at the palace where an American and an Iraqi flag had been arrayed next to the entrance to the hallway leading to the offices, where al-Maliki and one of his aides stood in anticipation of Bush's arrival.
Bush swept into the room where he met al-Maliki with his entourage and Secret Service in tow. He walked up to al-Maliki, who had been informed about five minutes before Bush's arrival that he was to have a special guest, and shook the prime minister's hand as the cameras flashed.
Al-Maliki said, "Good to see you," while putting his open hand to his heart, a gesture of appreciation. Bush responded, "Thanks for having me." They stood in the hallway for another minute and then disappeared into one of the palace offices.
The president also held meetings with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. Afterward, Barlett said Bush "came out of it with a very positive reaction."
Back at Camp David, other officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and CIA Director Michael Hayden, were speaking by video conference as planned. Rice and Secretary Don Rumsfeld appeared on Capitol Hill later in the afternoon for private meetings with Senate and House members.
Rice did not speak about any upcoming measures that will be taken in the coming months, but said the meeting of the two Cabinets was "exciting" and "touching."
Upon return, Air Force One was to stop in England for refueling. Bush was expected to brief congressional leaders on his trip on Wednesday afternoon.
Bush's departure from Camp David Monday night had required some surreptitious behavior on the president's part. While dining with officials, the president excused himself from after-dinner discussion around 7:45 p.m. EDT, telling his guests that he was "losing altitude" and wanted to read in bed a little before falling asleep. By 8 p.m. when the dinner wrapped up, Bush was already on his way to Andrews Air Force Base, and Air Force One departed at 9:07 pm EDT.
Tuesday's trip came as Bush is trying to recapture support for the Iraq war amid a positive week of news that included Zarqawi's death and the filling of the most important seats in Iraq's Cabinet.
Anxiety about the war has been driving down Bush's poll numbers and causing Republican anxiety about holding control of Congress in the November election.
The president's critics said they hoped the president would come up with a U.S. exit strategy after his visit. "Maybe he'll develop up a plan that will show us a way out of this quagmire," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
But Republican supporters of the president said Tuesday's trip symbolizes progress being made in Iraq and the need to stay the course.
"I think the president is doing exactly the right thing today. ... Sending a powerful signal to the Iraqi people that we are with you in the War on Terror, we are going to support this government that you have elected and we are going to win the War on Terror together," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"It's just dynamite," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who returned from Iraq on Monday night and noted he would have stayed there to catch a ride back on Air Force One if he'd known the president was going to be there.
Inhofe, who's been to Iraq 11 times since 2003, said he met with Iraqi officials, who demonstrated some of the training received by the 264,000 Iraqi troops. He said he was told that when 11 divisions — or 325,000 troops are trained — the Iraqis will want to take over security for themselves, though that does not mean U.S. troops will leave completely.
"It's a huge success story over there. I just don't understand why the media don't get it," he said, adding that al-Maliki's security adviser told him that the Iraqis are "getting very close to the time" when they will be in a position to take control of their security.
FOX News' Wendell Goler, Sharon Kehnemui Liss and The Associated Press contributed to this report.