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George Bush and Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad on June 13 (AFP) PRAGUE, June 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush has arrived on a surprise visit to Baghdad today, flying in amid absolute secrecy, taking observers completely by surprise.

Touching down at Baghdad's airport, he immediately transferred to a helicopter to fly to the heavily fortified Green Zone. There, he went to the U.S. Embassy to greet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the newly completed Iraqi cabinet.

Al-Maliki is reported to have welcomed the U.S. leader by saying, "Good to see you." Bush replied, "Thanks for having me."

Working Closely With Iraqi Government

Bush's visit underscores several recent developments in Iraq that Washington clearly sees as important benchmarks in efforts to stabilize the country.

One is the naming of the final members of the Iraqi cabinet on June 8. They include the defense and interior ministers, the two most important security posts, after months of wrangling among Iraq's political parties.

Prior to Bush's surprise visit, Washington had scheduled a video teleconference today between the U.S. president and key security members of the U.S. cabinet with their Iraqi counterparts. Instead, Bush led that meeting from Baghdad.

Sitting among the Iraq leaders, he told them: "I'm impressed by the cabinet that you've assembled. You've assembled people from all parts of your country, representing different religions and different histories."

Bush also assured the Iraqi side of Washington's continuing commitment. "I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word, that it is in our interest that Iraq succeed," he said. "It is not only in the interest of the Iraqi people, it is in the interest of the American people and for people who love freedom."

Ending Sectarian Violence

The president's change of location could serve to emphasize his government's determination to work with the new Iraqi administration as it seeks to quell tit-for-tat violence between Sunni and Shi'ite militant groups. Many of those groups are tied to Iraq's ruling parties themselves, complicating the effort.

"White House officials told us on the flight over, the secret overnight flight by Air Force One to Baghdad, that the president has wanted to do this for some time, but wanted to wait until the Iraqi cabinet was full and complete, all the security posts completed and filled in recent days," said John King, the U.S. pool reporter traveling with Bush.

"They say he wanted to meet the prime minister face-to-face because of the enormity of the decisions they face over the next couple of months, including, most significantly for President Bush, of course, how many U.S. troops here," King added.

The other recent event Bush may be seeking to underscore by his sudden visit is the killing of Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. air strike on June 7.

After the teleconference, Bush addressed a gathering of U.S. troops at the embassy. He thanked them for deposing Saddam Hussein as president in 2003 and said their work in Iraq was laying "the foundation for peace for generations to come."

Bush said he wasn't the only thankful American. "I bring greetings from a grateful nation," he said. "I thank you for your sacrifice, I thank you for your service, I thank you for making history."

After the speech, Bush was flown by helicopter back to Air Force One for his return flight to the United States.

Waiting For Good News

Observers say that Bush in recent months has often expressed the wish to visit Iraq but has awaited a moment when he could underline progress both to the Iraqi and U.S. publics.

One recent poll by "The Washington Post"-ABC News found only 33 percent of U.S. respondents approve of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq.

Bush's last visit to Iraq was in November 2003 to celebrate Thanksgiving with U.S. troops. That visit took place at the heavily protected Baghdad airport and the soldiers were assembled beforehand in a hanger without knowledge the president was coming.

Today, Bush's fly-in to the Green Zone takes the U.S. president into the center of the Iraqi capital to meet Iraqi leaders on their home ground.

It is not yet clear how many hours Bush will spend in Iraq. The departure time is as closely guarded a security secret as was his arrival.
Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi

Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi(undated AFP file photo)

COMMITTED TO TERROR: Jordan-born Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi has been among the most visible and ruthless leaders of Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein insurgency. In a tape released earlier this month, al-Zaqawi called on Iraqi Sunnis to fight against Shi'a and labeled Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani an "atheist."
Insurgents loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization have regained control over much of Al-Anbar Governorate, and are posing a major challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces. A local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military has all but ceased operating, after nearly a dozen tribal leaders were assassinated in revenge attacks by insurgents loyal to al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council since January. Local tribal leaders now say they are afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents....(more)


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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to see RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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