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Bush Defends Iraq War During a Farewell Visit

Yet attacks have continued and many areas in Iraq remain unstable, particularly in the north. Last week, at least 57 Iraqis were killed in a suicide attack at a popular restaurant outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The improved overall conditions in Iraq have had little discernible impact on the mood of the American public, which has said in polls that the invasion was a mistake. Bush offered in a recent interview that faulty intelligence that preceded the war was his "biggest regret," though he declined to say whether he would have changed course if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.

Bush previously traveled to Iraq in November 2003, June 2006 and September 2007. As with those trips, his fourth was surrounded in secrecy. Bush's office had distributed a bogus public schedule that said he would attend a "Christmas in Washington" event tonight at the National Building Museum.

A group of 13 journalists picked by the White House accompanied Bush and senior aides on the trip. They were told about the trip on Friday but were restricted to telling only a spouse and supervisor about the plans. Contrary to usual practice, Air Force One was kept in a hangar at Andrews until shortly before takeoff Saturday night.

The 43rd president made an unusual visit to the press section of the airplane during the flight, wearing a tan windbreaker, black slacks and a baseball cap emblazoned with the number "43," according to a pool report. "What a weak group," Bush joked to the reporters, adding: "Nobody knew who it was."

Talabani, speaking in English, called Bush a "great friend" who had "helped to liberate" Iraq. "Thanks to him and his courageous leadership, we are here," he said.

Bush's visit to Baghdad is part of a carefully orchestrated series of valedictory trips, speeches and interviews aimed at highlighting his administration's record on issues ranging from terrorism to the fight against AIDS. The effort has largely been overshadowed, however, by the ongoing economic crisis and by President-elect Barack Obama's preparations for his arrival at the White House.

Last week in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., Bush vigorously defended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and argued that his administration had "laid a solid foundation" for Obama overseas. Bush also urged Obama to "stay on the offensive" against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Eggen reported from Washington.

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