BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP – President Bush, seeking to bolster support for Iraq’s burgeoning goverment and U.S. war policy at home, made a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday to meet newly named Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and discuss the next steps in the troubled 3-year-old war.
It was a dramatic move by Bush, traveling to violence-rattled Baghdad less than a week after the death of terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a bombing attack. The president was expected to be in Baghdad a little more than five hours.
Bush met with al-Maliki in heavily fortified green zone at a palace once used by Saddam Hussein. It now serves temporarily as the U.S. Embassy.
“Good to see you,” exclaimed al-Maliki, who didn’t know Bush was in Baghdad until five minutes before they met.
“Thanks for having me,” Bush responded. They smiled broadly and gave each other a two-handed handshake in the high-domed marble room.
The trip was known only to a handful of aides and a small number of reporters sworn to secrecy because of obvious security threats for Bush and members of his entourage.
The prime minister had been invited to the embassy on the pretense of taking part in a video conference with Bush, supposedly at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountins. The videoconference was to go on as scheduled, but with Bush appearing alongside al-Maliki.
It was a dramatic move by Bush, traveling in secret to violence-ridden Baghdad six days after the death of Zarqawi. The administration hoped the elimination of Zarqawi and the completion of al-Maliki’s cabinet would make war-weary Americans look at Iraq in a more positive light.
Aside from al-Maliki and his cabinet, Bush was to see Jalal Talibani, Iraq’s largely ceremonial president. Bush also was to meet with the speaker of the parliament, national political leaders and U.S. troops.
Air Force One landed in hazy daylight at Baghdad Airport, where the temperature was above 100 degrees. Bush transferred to a helicopter for the six-minute ride to the green zone.