President Bush makes surprise Iraq visit

AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AP) – President George W. Bush and his national security team assessed first-hand the war in Iraq and prospects for political reconciliation on Sept. 3 before a showdown with Congress over the U.S. troop buildup.

The president secretly flew 12 hours to this dusty air base in a remote part of Anbar province, bypassing Baghdad in a symbolic expression of impatience with political paralysis in the nation’s capital. The gesture underscored the U.S. belief that the spark for progress may come at the local level.

After conferring with U.S. military leaders, Bush met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other top Iraqi officials from Baghdad. Bush reached across a narrow table and shook al-Maliki’s hand. When Talabani arrived, Bush greeted him, saying: “Mr. President … the president of the whole country.”

Then he gave Talabani a customary Middle Eastern greeting of three pecks on the cheek.

Senior members of Bush’s national security team were all in Iraq: Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley; Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq; Ambassador Ryan Crocker; Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Adm. William Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.

To a large degree, the setting was the message: Bringing al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of mostly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration’s war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for years under Saddam Hussein.

The temperature topped 110 degrees as Bush stepped off Air Force One. The president stopped at a small building where a Marine Cobra pilot briefed him about the positives and negatives of current troop rotations. He told the president that troops were not getting enough time at home and did not have enough time for training.

“Morale?” Bush asked. “How’s morale?”

“Very high sir,” the pilot, Capt. Lee Hemming, said.

Bush’s six-hour stay was confined to Al-Asad Air Base, an airfield once part of Saddam Hussein’s military.

Hadley said the trip was conceived about six weeks ago when top White House advisors began discussing Bush’s role as Congress returns to Washington and debate over the war heats up. It was decided that progress in Anbar made it the perfect place to showcase the administration’s strategy.

There has been a drop in violence in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents have teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down al-Qaida and other extremists.

Anticipating criticism that Bush’s trip was a media event to buttress support for his war strategy, the White House was ready to reply.

“There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity,” White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. “We wholeheartedly disagree.”

Hadley said Bush wanted to hear personally from commanders and from al-Maliki himself.

“There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye, and having a conversation with him,” Hadley said. “The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions.”

Next week, Petraeus and Crocker are scheduled to testify before Congress. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by Sept. 15, will determine the next chapter of the war.

Indications are that the president intends to stick with his current approach – at least into 2008 – despite pressure from the Democratic-led Congress and some prominent Republicans. Right now, the White House is working to keep Republican members of Congress in the president’s fold to prevent Democrats from amassing the strength to slash war funds or mandate immediate troop withdrawals.

With Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising U.S. death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give the al-Maliki government much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.