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Rodgers: 'There was explosive, euphoric reaction'

Walter Rodgers
Walter Rodgers

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Walter Rodgers
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. troops weren't the only ones surprised by President Bush's Thanksgiving Day visit to Iraq. The White House press corps was, too. For security reasons, Bush's trip would have been canceled if the information had leaked, so most reporters were kept in the dark.

Only about a dozen reporters who were with the president on Air Force One knew of his secret plans. CNN senior international correspondent Walter Rodgers, who is in Baghdad, learned of the president's visit after Air Force One had already left Baghdad. He joined CNN anchor Miles O'Brien to share what the troops told him of the visit.

RODGERS: We could say, not too facetiously, that the president's visit here was the second best kept secret in Iraq. The best kept secret remaining, where is Saddam Hussein? But, indeed, no one here in Iraq, in the journalism corps and for that matter most of the soldiers in Iraq, had any idea that the president was here until after the bulletin on The Associated Press crossed, and that, of course, broke the news.

But the soldiers who were in the hangar or at the dining hall with the president were told, if they wanted, they could enter a lottery, and they would have Thanksgiving dinner with the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer. So they said, what the heck, let's do it. And then the next thing you know, the president of the United States pops out from behind the curtain.

There was explosive, euphoric reaction here. These soldiers, men and women, are extraordinarily homesick, so any familiar face from home would have been welcome. And, of course, the president's their commander in chief. So all the more so.

I spoke with more than a few soldiers about all of this, and they said they were especially touched because he came to show how he really felt about us.

Another soldier said that it was very important for the president to come and share the hazards of the war zone with these soldiers.

Still, off the record -- that is, not for attribution -- other soldiers with whom I spoke still had their doubts about being here. One soldier, even after the president was here, and he spoke highly of the president's visit, went on to say, "All I care about now is getting out of here alive."

Another soldier, praising the president, also said he thinks the troops have been here too long. He thinks they should go home.

And another soldier, again praising the president's courage and his commitment to being here, said the danger now is worse than it was several months ago when he came.

Again, very important statement made by the president about his commitment. It was a bold and intrepid visit by the president. Having said that, very doubtful it's going to change a very bad situation on the ground here.

O'BRIEN: And even as the president was flying in, that bad situation continued. More mortars flying and more explosions to report?

RODGERS: That's true. I was here in this very same camera position when you were rolling tape of the president's visit. Now, he had been airborne for several minutes after that, but having said that, I could hear explosions behind me. Down here, in central Baghdad, it's not been a particularly loud night. There are many nights when there are many more explosions, shellings, mortars and so forth. But again, tonight, I can hear the AK-47, you know, automatic rifle fire in the background. That's a daily event here.

Again, the Iraqi people with whom we spoke were greatly surprised that he came, and I think many of them greatly pleased that he came. Others said that when the president says in Washington that he's made the commitment to stay until the job's finished, it's one thing. When he says it here in Baghdad, it has more meaning. That does not do much to advance the situation here, which remains very, very difficult.

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