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Bush says Iraq trip was 'right thing to do'

 Bush holds up a turkey platter for U.S. troops at Baghdad International Airport
Bush holds up a turkey platter for U.S. troops at Baghdad International Airport

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FACT BOX
Past presidential trips to war zones:
• 1952: Dwight David Eisenhower, then president-elect, visited Korea.
• 1966 and 1967: President Lyndon Johnson made two wartime trips to troops in Vietnam.
• 1969: President Richard Nixon visited troops in Vietnam.
• 1990: President George H.W. Bush visited U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia on Thanksgiving Day in the run-up to the Gulf War.
• 1999: President Bill Clinton addressed Kosovar refugees and NATO military personnel in Macedonia, two weeks after NATO airstrikes in Kosovo.
• 2003: President Bush pays a Thanksgiving Day visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad.

Source: The Associated Press
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(CNN) -- Shortly after he left Baghdad following his super secret trip, President Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One that he wanted the troops "in harm's way to know that their commander in chief and, more importantly, their country support them."

"This was the best way to thank them," he said. "Having seen the reaction of those troops, you know it was the right thing to do."

He continued: "Thanksgiving has got to be hard for young troops that know that their families are gathered in, having dinner and the turkey feast and everything. It's got to be a lonely moment for them. I felt like at this point, that it hopefully would help them to see their president."

Bush described the rousing ovation he received by the 600 members of the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division as an "emotional moment." (Full story)

"The energy level was beyond belief. I mean, I've been in some excited crowds before. But this place truly erupted. And I could see the first look of amazement and then look of appreciation on the kids' face," Bush said.

Underscoring his reason for going, the president said one soldier approached him and said, "I'm so glad you came, thanks for coming. It's important for us to know the people of America support us."

The president was in a pleasant mood, and seemed quietly satisfied that the trip had gone off without a hitch. He repeatedly talked about the troops rather than his own coup.

Bush was sitting behind his desk on the aircraft as he talked to reporters, wearing a blue flight jacket and a gray athletic T-shirt.

The planning for the trip had begun about five weeks earlier, he said, and that the only way to pull it off was to keep it secret.

"I understood the consequences and risks. And over time, I was assured by our planners and, as importantly, our military people and the pilot here of this airplane that the risk could be minimized if we kept the trip quiet," he said.

"I was fully prepared to turn this plane around."

Three hours into the flight, he checked with Secret Service and military personnel on the ground in Baghdad about flight safety. "They assured me that we still had a tight hold on the information, that conditions on the ground were as positive as could possibly be," he said.

He said he "was the biggest skeptic of all" about the trip, but "our planners worked hard to answer all the questions -- and I had a lot of questions."

"I think Americans understand that we have a bunch of kids in harm's way, and that a president -- if it can be done safely -- owes an explanation of thanks and thanksgiving to these kids," he said.

The president said after long discussions, he was convinced the trip could be done safely: "Had we announced this, it would have put me and others in harm's way."

The circle of people who knew about this was "pretty tight," he said.

A couple weeks ago, he said he had mentioned to first lady Laura Bush while in Asia that he was considering a Baghdad trip, but it wasn't until Wednesday when he told her he was definitely going.

He told his two daughters, Jenna and Barbara, about his plans yesterday, and they supported him.

He said he and other White House personnel sneaked out of the Crawford, Texas, ranch in a "plain-looking vehicle" with tinted windows for the drive to the Waco airport.

They encountered some traffic from people heading up to Dallas for Thanksgiving, making them 10 minutes late for the flight.

When they arrived at an airport gate, he and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- both wearing baseball caps -- lowered their hats to be incognito.

"We looked like a normal couple," he said.

Ground crews at the airport were told Air Force One was taking a maintenance flight, and they were not aware the president had boarded. The plane flew to Andrews Air Force Base, where those aboard transferred to another Boeing 747 for the flight to Baghdad.

Air Force One did not use its typical letters in flight. And at one point, the presidential plane came within eyesight of a British Airways flight.

"Did I just see Air Force One?" the pilot asked.

The Air Force One pilot responded, "Gulfstream 5."

After a long silence, the British Airways pilot, seeming to get that he was in on a secret, said, "Oh."

In addition to speaking to the troops in Baghdad, Bush met with four members of the Iraq Governing Council for about 30 minutes.

"I was able to assure them that we're going to stay the course and get the job done," he said.

Bush also told them it is also "up to them to seize the moment, to have a government that recognizes all rights, the rights of the majority and the rights of the minority, to speak to the aspirations and hopes of the Iraqi people."

"They assured me that they were making good progress, that the Iraqi people are overwhelmingly pleased that Saddam is gone," he said.

In addition, the president met with key commanders to discuss the progress of the war.

"They reported to me that the we're on the offensive, that we're using the tools necessary to suppress the handful of killers, and we're making good progress, and that the spirit of the troops is high," Bush said.


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