President Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad November 27, flying secretly on Air Force One to Baghdad International Airport, where he spent two and a half hours with a group of about 600 troops before heading back home to Texas.
The lights on the president's plane were off as it landed in darkness at about 5:30 p.m. local time Baghdad, to minimize chances of it being targeted.
Bush was introduced to the troops with the 81st Airborne and First Armored Divisions, who had assembled to have their Thanksgiving Day dinner in a tent at the airport, by Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer. Bremer pretended to begin to read the president's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation and then said that he knew that protocol required the most senior official present to read it. "Anybody back there more senior than I?" he asked.
Whereupon Bush came out from behind a curtain to excited cheers from the troops. General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, was also present.
"I can't think of a finer group to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all," Bush said. In his remarks, Bush praised the troops for their service, telling them that the United States stands solidly behind them. "I'm proud to be your commander-in-chief," he said.
Terrorists are testing America's resolve, Bush said, and "they hope we will run."
"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he said.
Bush urged the people of Iraq to "seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever," he said.
Bush promised the Iraqis that the United States "will stay until the job is done. I'm confident we will succeed, because you, the Iraqi people, will show the world that you're not only courageous, but that you can govern yourself wisely and justly."
Following his remarks, Bush, wearing an exercise jacket with a 1st Armored Division patch, stood in a food serving line and helped hand out sweet potatoes and corn for Thanksgiving Day dinner, and posed with a fresh-baked turkey on a platter.
Before departing Baghdad Bush met for about 30 minutes in a nearby building with four members of the Iraq Governing Council. Bush told reporters during the return flight that the council members "assured me that they were making good progress, that the Iraqi people are overwhelmingly pleased that Saddam is gone, that they do see a bright future and they want ... to work with us."
The visit was arranged under the tightest security. News of Bush's trip was not released until he was in the air on the way back to the United States. "If this breaks while we're in the air we're turning around," White House communications director Dan Bartlett told reporters during the flight to Baghdad.
The president had slipped away from his Texas ranch in an unmarked vehicle and was driven to the nearby airport used by Air Force One, where he climbed aboard the plane on the back stairs rather than the front, so airport workers would not recognize him.
"If you were sitting outside the ranch waiting for the president you would not have known the president had just left," Bartlett said.
En route to Iraq, the plane stopped at Andrews Air Force Base, in Maryland, outside Washington, to pick up a few aides and four reporters and a camera crew sworn to secrecy. Five photographers and another reporter accompanied him from Texas after being summoned just hours before his departure, according to the Associated Press.
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