President Bush traveled to Iraq under exceptional security and secrecy — even for a president who is pressing a war on terrorism.
Without notice, he left Camp David, Md., Monday night in a helicopter — not the distinctive green and white one he usually uses — and flew to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. He boarded Air Force One from the back rather than the front, wearing a ball cap, slacks and a shirt with no tie.
“The POTUS is on board,” he called out, a term meaning “President of the United States.”
Eleven hours later, while the world and even most aides thought he was still at Camp David, he was landing in hazy daylight at Baghdad Airport and boarding a Black Hawk helicopter for the six-minute trip to the Green Zone.
That short hop across a dangerous city — skipping low over homes, mosques and palm trees — was considered the most risky of the entire trip, a prime reason for all the secrecy in the previous hours.
Surprise to Iraqi prime minister
Wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt and blue tie, Bush swept into a large, domed room at the center of the Republican Palace, part of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad.
Escorted by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and other aides and Secret Service personnel, Bush walked up to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and shook his hand as the cameras flashed.
“Good to see you,” exclaimed al-Maliki, who had expected to be talking to Bush today in a videoconference to Camp David.
“Thanks for having me,” Bush responded.
The rest of Bush’s Cabinet had also expected to see him at Camp David on Tuesday for that meeting, ballyhooed in advance and part of a ruse to conceal the Baghdad trip.
Some 14 journalists, as well as a limited number of Bush aides, accompanied the president and were sworn to secrecy.
Month of planning
Only Bush’s innermost circle — Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush — knew where he was going Monday.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the trip to Baghdad had been in the works for about a month. Bush wanted to meet Maliki face to face so “they can establish a closer relationship than you can just over a telephone,” Bartlett said.
White House officials felt confident about Bush’s security because of the secrecy surrounding the trip and the fact that all the meetings were taking place inside the Baghdad Green Zone that militants have largely been unable to penetrate.
It was Bush’s second visit to Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The first was a trip to see U.S. troops over the Thanksgiving holiday in November 2003.