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President Bush, seeking to bolster support for Iraq's fledgling goverment and for US 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 deposed President Saddam Hussein. It now serves temporarily as the US 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 north of Washington. 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 al-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 (38 Celsius). Bush transferred to a helicopter for the six-minute ride to the green zone.
It was Bush's second trip to Baghdad in less than three years. He met with American troops at Thanksgiving 2003 in a visit confined to the airport and limited to several hours after dark. That trip was kept secret until Bush was safely in the air on the way home.
There are about 132,000 American forces in Iraq and Bush faces increasing pressure to begin troop withdrawals. Bush says cutbacks depend on Iraq's ability to provide for its own security.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the trip had been in the works for several weeks but was delayed until al-Maliki filled out his cabinet with his national security team last week.
"We are committed to the success of this new government and the Maliki plan that he is outlining," said Bartlett, who briefed reporters aboard Air Force One.
Al-Maliki has won U.S. admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence, promote national reconciliation, accellerate reconstruction efforts and restore essential services such as electricity.
Bush's meeting at Camp David was part of a ruse to conceal his Baghdad trip and a cover story to bring al-Maliki and his cabinet to the green zone.
Secrecy aside, the meeting was intended to strengthen ties between theBush administration and al-Maliki's ministries, Bartlett said.
Most of Bush's aides had expected the president to be at the table with them for the videoconference. Instead, they were seeing him from Baghdad. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney were in on the secret.