Bush in surprise visit to Baghdad

US President George Bush met newly-named Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in a surprise visit to Baghdad today to discuss the next steps in the troubled three-year-old war.

US President George Bush met newly-named Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in a surprise visit to Baghdad today to discuss the next steps in the troubled three-year-old war.

The dramatic move came as Bush sought to bolster support for Iraq’s fledgling government and US war policy at home.

Bush travelled to violence-rattled Baghdad less than a week after a US airstrike killed terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The president was expected to be in Baghdad a little more than five hours.

Bush met Maliki in the heavily-fortified green zone at a palace once used by deposed President Saddam Hussein but which now serves temporarily as the US Embassy.

“Good to see you,” exclaimed 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 shook hands vigorously in the high-domed marble room.

The trip was known only to a handful of aides and a small number of journalists sworn to secrecy because of obvious security threats for Bush and members of his entourage.

“Obviously, when you’re entering a situation where the enemy is so active we have to be extra cautious,” White House counsellor Dan Bartlett said.

The prime minister had been invited to the embassy on the pretence of taking part in a video conference with Bush, supposedly at Camp David, the presidential retreat north of Washington. The video conference was going on as scheduled, but with Bush to appear alongside Maliki.

Bush’s secret trip came six days after the death of al-Zarqawi. The administration hoped the elimination of the al Qaida in Iraq leader and the completion of Maliki’s cabinet would make war-weary Americans look at Iraq in a more positive light.

Aside from 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 US troops.

Air Force One landed in hazy daylight at Baghdad Airport, where the temperature was above 38C.

Bush transferred to a helicopter for the six-minute ride to the green zone.

It was Bush’s second trip to Baghdad in three years. He met American troops at Thanksgiving in 2003 in a visit confined to the airport and limited to several hours after dark. That trip was kept secret until Bush was 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.

Bartlett said the trip had been in the works for several weeks but was delayed until 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.

Maliki has won US admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence, promote national reconciliation, accelerate 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 Maliki and his cabinet to the green zone.

Secrecy aside, the meeting was intended to strengthen ties between the Bush administration and 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. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Vice President Dick Cheney were in on the secret.

Today’s trip came as Bush struggled for solid footing for his presidency, rocked by the Iraq war and other problems. About 2,500 members of the military have died since the war began in March 2003.

War anxiety has been the driving force behind Bush’s plunge in the polls and a cause of Republican distress about holding control of Congress in the November mid-term elections.

Approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dipped to 33%, a new low, and his overall job approval rating was 35% in a new AP-Ipsos Poll.

The poll, taken last week before the announcement of the death of al-Zarqawi, found that 59% of adults said the US made a mistake in going to war in Iraq - the highest level yet in AP-Ipsos polling.

It also found that more than half - 54% – said it’s unlikely that a stable democratic government will be established in Iraq – also a new high.

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