President Bush flew to Iraq under extraordinary secrecy and security Thursday to spend Thanksgiving with U.S. troops and thank them for "defending the American people from danger."
The unannounced visit brought wild cheers from battle-worn soldiers, stunned the nation and even surprised the president's parents, who had been expecting him at the Thanksgiving table at his Crawford, Texas ranch.
Bush, the first U.S. president to visit Iraq, promised that insurgents testing America's commitment will not be rewarded with a U.S. retreat.
"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush told about 600 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne.
The troops had been told only that they were gathered for Thanksgiving dinner with a VIP guest in the mess hall at Baghdad International Airport.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, added his own drama to the surprise. Billed as the special guest along with coalition forces commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, Bremer opened the program by telling the soldiers it was time to read the president's Thanksgiving proclamation.
He asked if there was "anybody back there more senior than us" to read the president's words. Bush emerged from behind a curtain as cheering soldiers climbed on chairs and tables to yell their approval.
The president shed a few tears.
"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," he joked, fresh from an 11-hour overseas flight. "Thanks for inviting me to dinner."
Wearing an exercise jacket with a 1st Armored Division patch, Bush then worked the entire room and dished out — but did not sit down to eat — sweet potatoes and corn from the chow line.
"We thank you for your service, we're proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you," he said during brief remarks delivered on a day when Americans count blessings. "You are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful."
Later, back aboard Air Force One for the flight home to Crawford, the president told reporters that he made his decision while thinking about how hard it must be for soldiers to spend the holiday far from home and family.
"It's got to be a lonely moment for them," Bush said. "I thought it was important to send that message that we care for them (the troops) and we support them strongly, that we erase any doubts in their minds as to whether or not the people stand with them. ... Having seen the reaction of those troops, you know it was the right thing to do."
The timing of the trip was by its very nature assured to give Bush maximum PR exposure, coming on a day when most Americans were relaxing at home, many watching football games, when the announcement came. Some networks interrupted programing with news of the journey.
With U.S. forces in Iraq the target of regular, deadly attacks, Bush has been heavily criticized for his policies, particularly from Democrats seeking to turn the issue into a political vulnerability for him in next year's presidential election.
More than five dozen U.S. troops were killed by hostile fire in November, more than any other month since the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1. Since operations began, nearly 300 U.S. service members have died of hostile action, including 183 since May 1.
The violence persisted Thursday even as the president was en route to Baghdad.
Insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Italian mission in the city, damaging the building but causing no injuries, the U.S. military said. Also, a U.S. military convoy came under attack on the main highway west of Baghdad near the town of Abu Ghraib, witnesses said. And in the northern city of Mosul, unidentified gunmen shot dead an Iraqi police sergeant, said Brig. Gen. Muwaffaq Mohammed.
But Bush, his visit providing striking images of support for him among the troops, told the soldiers their sacrifices are contributing to the safety of their nation.
"You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq so we don't have to face them in our own country," Bush said. "You're defeating Saddam's henchmen so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom."
In turn, soldiers spoke enthusiastically about the president. "After 13 months in theater, my morale had kind of sputtered," said Capt. Mark St. Laurent, 36, of Leesburg, Va. "Now I'm good for another two months."
During his 2 1/2 hours on the ground, Bush also met with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, Baghdad's mayor and city council, and with top U.S. commanders.
When Bush's father visited U.S. troops at a desert outpost in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day 1990, in the runup to the first Gulf War (news - web sites), he became the first U.S. president to visit a front-line area since President Nixon went to Vietnam in 1969.
Dwight David Eisenhower, as president-elect, visited Korean battle fronts in December 1952 and President Lyndon Johnson made two wartime trips to Vietnam.
Bush first began discussing a visit to Iraq for Thanksgiving five or six weeks ago, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said. After ordering the planning to proceed during his trip to Asia last month, Bush made the final decision to go on Wednesday, after a secure video conference call from his ranch with Vice President Dick Cheney, chief of staff Andrew Card and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
White House officials went to extraordinary lengths to keep the trip a secret, fearing its disclosure would prompt terrorist attempts to kill him.
In a ruse staged in the name of security, White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan put out word Wednesday — unknowingly, she said later — that Bush would be spending Thanksgiving in Texas with his wife, Laura, his parents and other family members. She even announced the dinner menu.
Only a handful of the president's top aides knew about the trip beforehand and Bush told reporters his decision was touch-and-go until the last minute. Even the president's parents were not told until they arrived at the ranch Thursday morning expecting to see their son for the Thanksgiving meal they would end up eating without him.
Instead, Bush had quietly slipped away from his home on Wednesday evening, in an unmarked vehicle and wearing a ballcap pulled down low over his forehead. He flew to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington accompanied from Texas by two reporters and a few photographers summoned only hours before. There, he picked up a few aides and some more reporters sworn to secrecy, and made the switch to another plane inside a huge hangar for the long flight.
It was evening in Baghdad when the president's plane — which had flown the whole trip with its lights darkened and window blinds closed — landed under a crescent moon, with Bush himself in the cockpit to watch Air Force One pilot Col. Mark Tillman "bring it in."
"Had security been broken, that would have been a time when we would have been most vulnerable," Bush said.
Even then, the news of Bush's trip was not released until he was in the air on the way back to the United States.
"If this breaks while we're in the air we're turning around," Bartlett had told reporters.