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PostTue Jun 13, 2006 10:00 am     Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq    


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Bush Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....rrer=email
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 10:28 AM

President Bush arrived in Baghdad this afternoon for a face-to-face meeting with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- an effort, the White House said, to get a clear sense of the premier's priorities and how the U.S. government could help his government succeed.

The White House originally had said Bush was scheduled to be at Camp David and to hold a video-conference with Maliki this morning. Instead, without telling the Iraqi government or all but his closest advisers, the president slipped out of Washington last night and made the 11-hour trip to Baghdad International Airport, landing at 4:08 p.m. Baghdad time (8:08 a.m. EDT).

Bush then traveled by helicopter to the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the new prime minister was waiting with one of his aides in the Republican Palace, a 1950s-era building that is now part of the U.S. Embassy compound.

"Good to see you," Maliki said to the president, who was escorted by a retinue of aides, including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad and the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

"Thanks for having me," Bush replied, before disappearing with Maliki into one of the offices. Maliki learned of Bush's visit only after his Nighthawk helicopter had landed in the Green Zone following a six-minute ride from the airport, part of the extraordinary security measures associated with the trip.

Today's visit was the latest step in the administration's effort to regain the initiative in Iraq following months of sectarian violence that has brought U.S. support for the war effort to a low point. The administration was buoyed by the death last week of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the completion of Maliki's cabinet. Bush had summoned his senior advisers to Camp David this week to outline new ways to help the fledgling government. Administration officials see the success of the new government as their last best hope to stabilize the situation in Iraq.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters aboard Air Force One before landing in Baghdad that a personal meeting was designed to allow Bush and Maliki to "establish a closer relationship than you can just over a telephone."

"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, it's 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."

In talking to reporters, Bartlett outlined an extraordinary security effort aimed at making sure the presidential visit went off without trouble in Baghdad. Apart from Vice President Cheney, the only cabinet members told about the trip were Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, both of whom remained at Camp David after Bush left for Iraq. Bartlett said the trip was planned during the past month by a small group of six White House aides.

He said Bush wanted to come to Iraq as soon as the final positions in Maliki's cabinet -- the interior and defense ministers -- were filled, and he would have come sooner if those positions had been filled sooner.

Bush met all day Monday with top advisers and his Cabinet at Camp David, excusing himself after an after-dinner discussion about Iraq that included Cheney and his top military and intelligence officials. At about 7:45, Bartlett said, Bush told the officials that he was "losing altitude" and wanted to go to bed to read a bit before falling asleep. Instead he helicoptered to Andrews Air Force Base.

Bartlett declined to say how Bush sneaked away without the other officials noticing, but he said the helicopter that Bush flew to Andrews was not the green and white helicopter normally used as Marine One.

"Our cabinet is not completely aware," Bartlett said. "They all expected him to show up at breakfast with the ambassador or Iraq."



President Bush delivers a statement after meeting with the interagency team on Iraq on Monday, June 12, 2006 in Camp David, Md. outside Washington. At left is Vice President Dick Cheney. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci - AP)


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