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Iraq/U.S.: What Motivated Bush To Pay A Surprise Visit To Baghdad?

  • Sergei Danilochkin

U.S. President George W. Bush went on a brief, unannounced visit to Iraq yesterday to thank American soldiers for their work in the country. Bush sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with a group of U.S. soldiers, whose morale has been tested by continuing deadly attacks by Iraqi insurgents. Bush also met with a few members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Prague, 28 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- George W. Bush's visit to Iraq was kept so confidential that it was reported by the media only after the president's plane, Air Force One, had left Baghdad on its return trip to the United States.

According to some top U.S. officials, the planning for the trip took about five weeks and only an extremely small group of people knew about it till the very last moment.

The last such secret trip abroad by a U.S. president was Franklin D. Roosevelt's trip to Yalta in 1945. Then U.S. President Roosevelt met in the Crimean city with America's main allies in World War II to discuss the future arrangement of the world.

Bush devoted the major part of his 2 1/2 hours in Baghdad to delivering a Thanksgiving address and greeting U.S. troops who had assembled at the airport for what they thought was a routine celebration of the American national holiday of Thanksgiving.

The commander in chief told the soldiers -- who shouted with surprise when they saw him -- that their country is proud of their service.

"I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we're proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you. Together, you and I have taken an oath to defend our country. You're honoring that oath. The United States military is doing a fantastic job," Bush said.

Analysts say that Bush's main objective in visiting Iraq seems to have been to boost the morale of U.S. soldiers stationed in the country. Their morale has been tested by continuing guerrilla attacks on U.S. patrols, which have killed 185 soldiers since Washington declared major hostilities in Iraq over on 1 May.

Julian Lindley-French of The Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland says that Bush wanted to show the soldiers that Washington recognizes their sacrifices.

"It's Thanksgiving, which is a very important festival in the American calendar. It's a time when families are together in the United States. And the president wished to show that as commander in chief he was with his soldiers in the field," Lindley-French said.

As such, Bush's trip is hardly the first morale-boosting mission to a conflict-zone. Five previous U.S. leaders have done the same.

In 1952, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower visited U.S. soldiers in Korea. Lyndon Johnson went on a similar mission in Vietnam twice -- in 1966 and 1967. Two years later, President Richard Nixon also went to Vietnam to meet with the troops.

In 1990 and during his term as president, George Bush Sr. addressed American soldiers in Saudi Arabia. And about four years ago, Bill Clinton went to meet NATO military personnel in Macedonia in the wake of air strikes in Kosovo.

But some observers say boosting morale may not have been the only reason for Bush to visit Iraq now. They note that Bush faces presidential elections this time next year and such a bold trip to a war zone could win sympathy and support from American voters who also are concerned about their troops' welfare.

Richard Beeston, a political observer for Britain's daily "The Times," wrote today that "as he prepares for his looming presidential re-election campaign next year, Mr. Bush badly needs to counter the daily reports of American casualties with some positive news."

Beeston continues: "Yesterday, criticism of his policy was silenced by images of his tearful address to hundreds of cheering soldiers, and his sagging poll ratings seem certain to jump in the wake of the PR coup."

But not all analysts agree. Lindley-French says that, while politicians in democratic countries sometimes go out of their way to woo the public, labeling Bush's trip as a campaign stop would be too cynical an assessment.

"The election is still one year away. There is an awful lot that can happen. I think he is a man of robust moral principle, who also believed that he had to be there [in Iraq] with the forces," Lindley-French said.

Many observers note that Bush flew into Baghdad International Airport at some risk to his personal safety. The airport is often closed to normal commercial flights due to attacks on aircraft by guerrillas using shoulder-fired missiles. The visually-aimed missiles are generally considered inaccurate at night -- when Bush flew in -- but still pose a danger.

Another part of Bush's visit to Baghdad was spent meeting with the Iraqi leadership. The U.S. president met with several members of the Iraqi Governing Council, among them reportedly the current head of the body, Jalal Talabani, and Ahmad Chalabi.

Bush also devoted some of his speech at the airport to the Iraqi people at large.

"The United States and our coalition will help you [Iraqis], help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We'll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done," Bush said.

Analyst Lindley-French says the purpose of those remarks -- coupled with Bush's personal appearance in Baghdad -- was likely to try to show the Iraqis that stability is just around the corner after months of disruption following the March-April war.

He says Bush's visit and his talks with Governing Council members will certainly be a topic of conversation among Iraqis, "because the coalition is running their lives. Iraqis are not in any way broadly against what the Americans are doing there in Iraq. There are some who are against Americans violently. There are some who oppose the American presence and the coalition presence in a less negative manner. And there are many Iraqis who welcome the American presence."

Iraqi society is reportedly split in its attitudes toward the coalition's presence and actions in Iraq. In the predominantly Shi'ite regions in the south of the country and in the Kurdish areas in the north, the attitude is positive. But many analysts say that Iraqis across the country also want to take control over their destiny as soon as possible.

Finally, Bush's visit may not only have aimed at reassuring Iraqis that their country is becoming stable again, but to send that message to the international community as well. Bush's visit closely follows that of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Iraq earlier this week. The rapid-sequence fly-ins could now be a message to the UN and other international organizations to begin to think about returning their own foreign staff to the country, too.