msnbc.com news services
updated 11/28/2003 12:28:08 PM ET 2003-11-28T17:28:08

President Bush returned to the United States early Friday after a secret morale-boosting trip to Baghdad for Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops amid mounting casualties and political pressure at home.

DURING HIS LIGHTNING trip, Bush thanked American soldiers for “sacrificing for our freedom and our peace,” and assured the Iraqi Governing Council that the United States would stay the course while urging them to work harder to prepare for next year’s handover of sovereignty.

Upon hearing of the visit, some Iraqis reacted with befuddlement and bemusement, saying they knew it was meant for U.S. troops but hoping he gained some insight into the country during his brief stay.

In an elaborate plan to ensure his security, Bush slipped away from his Texas ranch Wednesday night, arrived in Iraq on Thursday and spent 2½-hours with the troops, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the country.

He arrived back in Washington shortly after midnight Friday morning and was due to continue on to Texas.

At the heavily fortified Baghdad International Airport, Bush thanked American troops, who are subject to repeated attacks from a deadly guerrilla insurgency, and vowed that U.S. forces would prevail.

“We did not charge hundreds of miles through the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins,” he said to a standing ovation.

“We will prevail. We will win because our cause is just. We will win because we will stay on the offensive.”

Image: Toast
Soldiers of the Army's 1st Armored Division make a toast before a traditional Thanksgiving lunch at their base in eastern Baghdad.
His surprise appearance was greeted by thunderous applause and enthusiasm from soldiers, who cheered and jumped to their feet when he entered.

“I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we are proud of you and America stands solidly behind you,” an emotional Bush told about 600 soldiers.

Afterward Bush shook hands with soldiers and took a place on the chow line, dishing out food.

Despite Bush’s visit and statements, Iraqis said they understood the trip wasn’t meant for them.

“It meant little to the Iraqi people. Some are welcoming it, but most are dismissing its importance,” said Kamal Mehdi, a cashier in Baghdad.

“U.S. soldiers needed such a visit to ... make them more confident in carrying out their tasks, and the Iraqi people are happy because it made Bush understand the reality of Iraq,” said Wina Waria, an employee for a Baghdad trade company.

PUBLIC PERCEPTION

With the U.S. economy improving, Iraq is emerging as perhaps the greatest threat to Bush’s re-election in 2004 as American occupation troops suffer casualties almost every day.

More than 180 U.S. soldiers have died since he declared major combat operations over in May with a controversial visit to an aircraft carrier. At that time, a banner proclaimed “Mission Accomplished.”

Since then he has seen his popularity fall as American concern over the Iraqi operation has grown.

Bush’s secretive trip came as U.S. efforts to return sovereignty to Iraqis more swiftly have become snarled and the international community, much of which opposed the U.S.-led invasion, is pressing for a greater role.

He met four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-appointed group that has struggled to return normal life to Iraqis and is drawing up plans for free elections and a constitution.

Bush said he had assured them “we are going to stay the course and get the job done. But I also reminded them ... that it’s up to them to seize the moment, to have a government that recognizes all rights, the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority, to speak to the aspirations and hopes of the Iraqi people.”

The trip was made amid great secrecy. Even Bush’s parents, who were due to eat a traditional turkey dinner with their son, were not told. To avert detection and a possible missile attack on approach to Baghdad, the president’s plane flew under a code name and made the journey with lights out.

Defending his decision to make the trip and the deception surrounding it, Bush said: “I think the American people appreciate me going to express my sympathies to these kids.

“These people are sacrificing for our freedom and our peace. We are at war with terror. We are in the process of changing Iraq, which will make America more secure, and Americans appreciate that a lot,” he told reporters on the flight home.

Bush said plans had been in the works for weeks for the trip, which he had been prepared to abort if word had leaked out.

“Had I not been convinced it could be done properly, I would not have gone,” he said.

He said he was smuggled off his Crawford, Texas, ranch in an unmarked vehicle and largely went unnoticed on the 45-minute drive to the airport in nearby Waco, although at one point he pulled a baseball cap down over his face and slouched in his seat when passing a guard.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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