President Bush shocked troops here Thursday by unexpectedly crashing their Thanksgiving dinner, in an extraordinarily secretive visit that underscored both his commitment to prosecute a war against tenacious guerrilla insurgents and the tense state of security in the Iraqi capital.
The president crept out of his ranch near Crawford, Texas, without notifying most of his press corps and arrived aboard a darkened Air Force One at 5:30 p.m. at Baghdad International Airport -- where a DHL cargo plane recently returned after takeoff after guerrillas pierced its wing with rockets during takeoff.
The trip, which made Bush the first U.S. president to visit Iraq, was so guardedly choreographed that senior officials of the U.S.-led occupation authority said they had not detected intensified security, as they routinely have for less senior officials.
"I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we're proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you," Bush told 600 soldiers with the Army's 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 82nd Airborne Division. "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don't have to face them in our own country. You're defeating Saddam's henchmen, so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom."
The 2 1/2-hour drop-in came as the Bush administration confronted recent polls showing the American public's declining confidence in his handling of a stubborn war against a largely faceless enemy, and less than a year before the 2004 presidential election. It was greeted with raucous glee by soldiers in the Bob Hope Dining Facility, who leaped atop chairs and tables, yelling, "Hoo-ah!" But Iraqis were deeply divided about the trip, and presidential critics decried it as a campaign gimmick.
For some, the clandestine journey that built to a triumphant arrival was reminiscent of the president's landing in May on an aircraft carrier festooned with a banner that read, "Mission Accomplished," a slogan the president later disowned amid rising American casualties. Some observers said both events bore the imprint of Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor.
It is nevertheless "an act of considerable political panache," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
"This is very Bush-Rovian, to really seize the agenda, particularly when you seem to be slipping," Greenstein said. "He's been under fire for seeming to be callous or indifferent to troop casualties. What he's done, on a low-news national holiday, is make a terrific splash. Nobody would deny the value of the chief executive being there to pay tribute to and buck up the troops on Thanksgiving Day.... I don't see any downside."
Bush also met Thursday with members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, including Iraqi National Congress faction leader Ahmad Chalabi, a senior occupation official said. The president urged them to "protect the rights of the minority," he said later, referring to Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis.
Introducing Bush to the troops, L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation authority's civilian administrator, said he had Thanksgiving greetings from the president, glanced offstage, then added, "Let's see if we've got anyone more senior here." As Bush walked in, soldiers erupted into a standing ovation, peppered with hoots and cheers.
"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," he quipped.
"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush said, wearing a jacket bearing the 1st Armored Division's "Old Ironsides" patch.
Entering the hall, a tear visible in his eye, was "an emotional moment," Bush said afterward.
Then, in a military tradition in which senior officers serve their subordinates at Thanksgiving, the commander in chief doled out helpings, saying, "What do you want?" to soldiers who tucked into platefuls of turkey, shrimp, ham, prime rib, Cornish hen and an array of starches, vegetables and pies.
"It's got to be a lonely moment for them," Bush told reporters after leaving Baghdad. "I felt like at this point, that it ... would help them to see their president."
"It shows that he cares about us and is thinking about us. It's not easy being here," said 1st Armored Division Staff Sgt. Gerrie Stokes Holloman, 34, of Baltimore. "For the most part, people are tired and want to go home. But the support and encouragement we get from our leadership builds a bond."
Pvt. Stephen Henderson was dumbfounded. "I've never been so surprised. I had no idea -- not a clue," said Henderson, a 19-year-old from Inglewood with the 1st Armored Division. "I almost forgot I was even here."
Baghdad residents offered more mixed views.
"If I could see Mr. Bush, I would kiss him immediately," said Jamal Mahmud, 65, an importer and exporter who returned from a 35-year exile after U.S. forces toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "This is a historic moment for Iraqis. But it was a very short one, and nobody knows about it. It would have been better for Mr. Bush, in order to gain Iraqis' trust, to give a speech to them."
Farooq Fadil differed, saying the visit marked the United States' failure to restore civil order in Iraq. "I remember very well his image on the TV when he spoke about the new, free Iraq. Is this now the new Iraq that he was speaking about?" said Fadil, 37, who teaches Arabic in intermediate school. "He is trying to do what he can to satisfy American taxpayers and prepare for his reelection."
The shroud of secrecy around the visit came off like a scene from an Ian Fleming novel. For the duration of the 10 1/2-hour flight from Washington to Baghdad, the whereabouts of the most powerful political leader on Earth was not publicly known. At one point, White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said, a British Airways pilot was heard via radio saying, "Did I just see Air Force One?"
The White House went to the extraordinary lengths of publishing the president's Thanksgiving menu at his Texas ranch, as it would any other year. Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were expecting to see their son at dinner, were not told until after he had left.
Officials of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority who had turned down invitations to the event scrambled to call colleagues via satellite phone to confirm reports that the president had arrived. Very few U.S. officials -- among them Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. John Abizaid, top war zone commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Bremer -- knew about the president's arrival beforehand, Bartlett said. Although White House officials said the trip was first discussed at least five weeks ago, Sanchez said he was given just three days' notice.
Occupation authority staff who rushed to perform heightened security duties had no idea for whom they were doing it, Sanchez said. A pool reporter was forbidden to tell his employer or family where he was going. Other journalists were forbidden to file their stories until the president's Boeing 747 had left Baghdad.
Bartlett, who boarded the plane with Bush Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, warned a small pool of reporters, "If this breaks while we're in the air, we're turning around." That was in stark contrast to late 2001, when Rumsfeld's cargo plane landed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan shortly after the Reuters wire service published news of his impending arrival.
The secrecy and the decision to confine the president's trip to the heavily fortified airport was because of the dubious security of the capital. U.S. military commanders said attacks jumped from 15 a day last summer to as many as 35 a day early this month, although the 4th Infantry Division's Col. James Hickey said guerrilla assaults have declined in the last two weeks.
Of the nearly 300 American troops killed by hostile fire since the war began, more than half have died since Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1. Yet Bush departed at dusk after one of the quietest days in the last month, with few attacks marring the holiday.
Air Force One touched down at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington just before midnight, and the president was due to return to his ranch early today.
Bush's surprise visit to Baghdad is one of only a handful of top-secret presidential trips in modern times, and the first since Lyndon B. Johnson made an unscheduled stop in Vietnam in 1967. The practice was inaugurated in January 1943, when a Pan Am Dixie Clipper carried Franklin D. Roosevelt across the submarine-infested Atlantic Ocean to attend a war summit with Winston Churchill in Casablanca, North Africa. It was the first time a sitting president had flown in a plane.
Responding to criticism that the massive postwar occupation has excessively taxed troops pulling yearlong stints, Sanchez said none of the many soldiers he spoke with Thursday had complained of low morale.
"Not a single soldier had an issue," he said. "Absolutely, there is no morale problem here in this community."
In interviews, most soldiers expressed support for the president. But others confessed to lagging morale.
As he labored without light in the mud, another soldier wearing the distinctive diagonally striped square patch of the 3rd Infantry Division, the longest-serving American soldiers still in the Persian Gulf, complained, "You all know the 3rd I.D. is still here, right?"
An hour and a half's drive north in Tikrit, the home and power base of Hussein, a soldier who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, "People are getting killed -- for nothing."
Times staff writer Warren Vieth in Washington contributed to this report.