Reuters: President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad to try to bolster the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday, days after U.S. forces killed al Qaeda’s chief in Iraq. By Steve Holland and Omar al-Ibadi
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad to try to bolster the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday, days after U.S. forces killed al Qaeda’s chief in Iraq.
“I have come to not only look you in the eye; I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word,” Bush told Maliki, who faces continued violence across Iraq and a new threat of vengeance from the slain al Qaeda leader’s successor.
Bush also thanked the U.S. military during the visit, his first since Thanksgiving in November 2003.
“America is safe. The world is better off,” he told troops and U.S. embassy personnel in Baghdad’s fortified “Green Zone”.
A U.S. air strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, last week, but the deaths of 14 people in a wave of bombings in the oil city of Kirkuk on Tuesday were seen as a bid by al Qaeda to show its campaign of violence would go on.
“Our swords are poised above your necks,” said a statement signed by Zarqawi’s successor, the little-known Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, on a Web site often used by Islamic militants.
Security concerns meant Bush’s journey to Baghdad was top secret and many of his own aides were kept in the dark.
Only Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were aware Bush had slipped away from Camp David abruptly on Monday night. He spent several hours in Baghdad before returning to Washington.
Aides said he was in the cockpit of Air Force One when it landed in the Iraqi capital with a sharp bank and quick landing. He then took an 8-minute helicopter ride in searing heat to the “Green Zone” for talks with the Iraqi cabinet and U.S. commander in Iraq General George Casey at the U.S. embassy.
Bush’s meeting with the Iraqi cabinet was connected by video to Camp David, where Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice remained.
The president told Maliki he carried heavy responsibilities.
“The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself,” he said.
Maliki said his cabinet, postwar Iraq’s first full time government, was determined to defeat the insurgents so U.S. and other forces could withdraw.
“God willing all the suffering will be over, all the soldiers will return to their countries with our gratitude, for what they have offered, the sacrifices,” he said.
The U.S. death toll in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion is approaching 2,500, and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.
U.S. public unease with the war is growing in a congressional election year and Bush faces calls to set a timetable for withdrawal of some 130,000 U.S. troops.
On Monday he reiterated they would stay until conditions improved to the point where they could be withdrawn. In a letter to the United Nations Security Council circulated on Tuesday, Iraq said its troops and police were not yet ready.
Bush’s poll numbers have dipped to some of the lowest of his presidency, largely because of Iraq.
In one of the Kirkuk attacks, a car bomb exploded outside the house of a senior police officer, seriously wounding him and killing one of his bodyguards, police said.
As police and U.S. forces gathered in the area, a roadside bomb exploded, killing 10 civilians, in a common tactic by Sunni Arab insurgents seeking to topple the Shi’ite-led government backed by the United States.
“The terrorists want to send a message that they are staying active despite the fact that Zarqawi was killed,” said Rizgar Ali, head of Kirkuk’s governing council.
Bush also told Maliki he had heard reports Iran was “interfering” in Iraq and said that had to stop, Iraqi government sources who attended the talks said. Iran has denied the allegations.
A senior Iraqi defense ministry official told Reuters more than 40,000 Iraqi and U.S. forces backed by tanks would launch a crackdown in Baghdad on Wednesday, in what would be one of the biggest such operations since the 2003 war.
“Armored personnel carriers and tanks will be used. We will depend on intelligence to find suspects,” Major General Abdel Aziz Mohammed told Reuters.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have held several such operations aimed at rooting out insurgents but have failed to stem a campaign which is dominated by Saddam Hussein loyalists.
In Saddam’s trial at a courtroom in the Green Zone on Tuesday, the chief judge said it would be the last day to hear defense witnesses, setting the stage for final arguments before a verdict, although appeals may cause long delays.
Saddam and seven co-accused are on trial for crimes against humanity in connection with the killings of 148 Shi’ites after an attempt on his life in the town of Dujail in 1982.
(Additional reporting by Sherko Raouf in Kirkuk)