By Jonathan Finer and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
BAGHDAD, June 13 -- President Bush told Iraq's prime minister and his cabinet Tuesday that "we'll keep our commitment" not to withdraw troops from the country until the new government is capable of defending itself.
During an unannounced visit to Baghdad aimed at buttressing the newly formed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush pledged his support for the country's new leader and declared that "the fate of the Iraqi people is in their hands, and our job is to help them succeed."
Bush, making his first appearance here since serving Thanksgiving turkey to U.S. troops in 2003, greeted Maliki under the cupola of a marble-walled chamber in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, now serving as the U.S. Embassy. Afterward, the president told reporters that Iraq's leaders were "deeply concerned that the stability provided by the coalition forces will be removed and there'll be a vacuum. And they're concerned about what goes into the vacuum, and I can understand that concern."
"I assured them that we'll keep our commitment," Bush said during his flight home. "I also made it clear to them that in order for us to keep our commitment and be successful, they themselves have to do some hard things. They themselves have to set an agenda. They themselves have to get some things accomplished."
The visit, shrouded in such secrecy that much of Bush's Cabinet and senior White House staff did not know about it, came as there are mounting U.S. and Iraqi military operations aimed at further disrupting Iraq's insurgency, and defiant promises from insurgents of more violence after the killing last week of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters on the 11-hour flight to Baghdad from Andrews Air Force Base that Bush had planned the trip for months with a "very, very close circle" of about six White House staff members.
Administration officials went to extraordinary lengths to keep their plans secret, including issuing a false press statement Monday night saying the president would be having a press availability in the Rose Garden on Tuesday. White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said: "Nothing was done with the goal of duping anyone. . . . The purpose of the secrecy was security."
Arriving along with several staff members just after 4 p.m., Bush spent about five hours in Iraq's fortified Green Zone -- the only place he visited besides Baghdad's international airport. Joined by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.S. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., he met first with Maliki and his cabinet, which was completed last week after months of wrangling, and later with about 400 American troops and civilian workers in the palace's sprawling cafeteria.
The president wanted to meet face-to-face with Maliki to offer support and get a better sense of his personality and priorities, Bartlett said. Relations between the Iraqi government and U.S. officials in Iraq had been strained in recent weeks by allegations that Marines in the western city of Haditha killed 24 unarmed civilians, after which the Iraqi prime minister called for more clearly defined rules regarding the use of force by foreign troops.
"Good to see you," said Maliki, who had arrived expecting a videoconference with Bush speaking from Camp David and learned the president was in Baghdad only minutes before he entered the room.
"Thank you for having me," Bush replied, as the two men shook hands and beamed for cameras.
"I appreciate that you recognize the fact that the future of your country is in your hands," Bush said during a second photo session with Maliki, a member of a leading Shiite Muslim religious party who worked for months to build a cabinet that represents each of Iraq's main factions.
During brief and somewhat subdued remarks, the prime minister responded: "God willing, all of the suffering will be over, and all of the soldiers will be able to return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered."
Bush said later that "I came away with a very positive impression" of Maliki. "He was a serious-minded fellow who recognized that there had to be progress in order for the Iraqi people to believe the unity government will make a difference in their lives."
An adviser to Maliki, Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, said Bush's visit "showed that after the killing of Zarqawi, the Americans are not just going to rest, and that he is still in touch with Iraq."
But Sahib al-Amery, a political ally of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who issues frequent calls for the United States to withdraw from Iraq, called Bush "an unwelcome guest."
"He is the president of a country which is occupying our country," Amery said in a telephone interview from the southern city of Najaf.
Later, in a more raucous session with U.S. soldiers just before he departed, Bush received long ovations when he referred to two vanquished adversaries in the ongoing conflict: Hussein, the deposed Iraqi president who is standing trial about a mile from where Bush spoke, and Zarqawi, who was killed last Wednesday by two 500-pound bombs dropped by a U.S. warplane.
"Our military will continue to hunt people like Mr. Zarqawi and bring them to justice," he said, as the crowd cheered wildly for 30 seconds or more and waved hats before him. Hussein, he said, was "a selfish, brutal leader."
"Your sacrifice is noble. Your sacrifice is important," he told the soldiers, adding that he was aware of the strain that their service in Iraq placed on families. "I truly believe the work that you are doing is laying the foundations of peace for generations to come."
The Bush trip, the latest element of an unfolding presidential effort to regain the initiative in Iraq, was timed to the completion of Maliki's government but received a boost with the killing of Zarqawi, the most wanted leader of the insurgency.
Bush administration officials said that high-level discussions at Camp David on Monday and Tuesday dealt with potential initiatives to help the Iraqis develop better security for Baghdad, improve electricity service, rebuild the agricultural sector and solicit more help from Iraq's neighbors. But other than more technical assistance from U.S. Cabinet agencies, officials said they did not anticipate major departures in policy, new funds for reconstruction or troop reductions.
One general officer briefed on the Camp David sessions said no sign emerged of any shift in basic approach. "There were a lot of things affirmed at the meeting," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the subject. "We did not get the impression coming out of there that there were any dramatic changes."
Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, who attended the meetings at Camp David, said the group had an extensive discussion about oil and electricity problems, key priorities for the Iraqi government. One idea mentioned by Bush was setting up a fund with some of the country's oil revenue that could be shared with the people, perhaps as the state of Alaska does with its oil revenue, Bodman said.
But Bodman stressed: "The plan has to be the Iraqi plan. . . . The Iraqis are going to be making decisions. It is clear to everybody that the assets represented by the oil . . . are the property of the Iraqi people."
Abramowitz reported from Washington. Staff writers Bradley Graham, Ann Scott Tyson and Charles Babington in Washington and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.