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'It felt good,' GI says of Bush's visit

Trip to Iraq surprises almost everyone, especially press corps

Bush holds a platter of turkey and fixings as he visits with troops.
Bush holds a platter of turkey and fixings as he visits with troops.

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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

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- President Bush returned to Texas early Friday after making an unannounced visit to Baghdad to spend part of Thanksgiving Day with U.S. troops -- a trip that surprised not only the soldiers but also virtually everyone else in the world.

Bush touched down in Waco, Texas, around 3:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m. EST) Friday en route to his ranch in nearby Crawford. He had arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland several hours earlier.

His visit marked the first time a U.S. president had traveled to Iraq, and concern for Bush's safety kept the trip cloaked in secrecy. Even some members of the Secret Service were kept in the dark about it.

The whirlwind trip came amid persistent insurgent attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq -- and less than a week after a cargo plane was struck by a missile and forced to land at the Baghdad airport.

Air Force One, with its lights turned off for security reasons, touched down at Baghdad International Airport at 5:31 p.m. (9:31 a.m. EST) and taxied to a remote corner of the airport.

Bush then went to a hangar where about 600 members of the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne Division had gathered.

The U.S. forces had been told that L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces, would be attending the dinner.

As Bremer prepared to read a presidential proclamation to the troops, he said, "Let's see if we've got anybody more senior here who can read the president's Thanksgiving speech. Is there anybody back there who's more senior than I?"

Bush then emerged, misty-eyed and wearing a U.S. Army exercise jacket, to a roaring ovation.

The shocked and elated soldiers jumped to their feet, pumped their fists in the air, roared with delight, and grabbed their cameras to snap photographs.

"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," Bush joked, and added: "I can't think of a finer group of folks to have dinner with."

Then the commander-in-chief got serious.

"You are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful. You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq."

The insurgents in the country are "testing our will. They hope we will run," he said.

But, he said, "we did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins."

That line prompted a standing ovation.

"We will prevail. We will stay until the job is done," he said.

Afterward, Bush mingled with soldiers and temporarily joined the servers on the food line to dish out sweet potatoes and corn.

"It gave us a little extra oomph," Spc. Talitha Williams, an Arkansas native assigned to the 1st Armored Division. "Maybe we can get through this."

"It felt good," said Spc. Juan Deloera, also with the 1st Armored Division. "It really boosted my morale."

"It helps a lot knowing that the commander in chief himself is going to come out here and make some of the same sacrifices away from his family, away from his home, to show that he is devoted and in the same position that we are," said Pvt. Patrick McFarland of the 1st Armored Division.

"That's where your mind is, on home this time of the year, and you think about your loved ones, your friends and things like that, and then you have the leader of our country come here and share dinner with us. It's actually very special," said Sgt. Robert Dunn, a Dallas native with the 1st Armored Division.

The president also went behind closed doors for two separate meetings with U.S. commanders and four members of the Iraq Governing Council. After being on the ground 2.5 hours, the president left Baghdad around 8 p.m. (noon EST).

At the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where reporters had been told Bush would be having Thanksgiving dinner, the reaction among the press corps was shock and awe.

Word of the trip was so tightly held that some members of the Secret Service were not told, and the number of senior White House officials who knew about it could be counted on one hand.

Sanchez, the coalition commander, didn't learn of the trip until 72 hours beforehand.

Bush sneaked out of his 1,600-acre Crawford ranch in an unmarked car Wednesday evening, slipping past reporters without notice. (Timeline of Bush's trip)

From there, at 7:25 p.m. (8:25 p.m. EST), he took a flight to Andrews Air Force Base to pick up close aides. They then switched planes for the flight to Baghdad.

As the plane was en route, White House communications director Dan Bartlett told the few reporters who were allowed to travel with Bush: "If this breaks while we're in the air, we're turning around."

The news broke minutes after Bush left Iraq.

Iraqis meet to discuss transition plan

The current head of the Iraqi Governing Council met Thursday with a top Shiite leader to discuss the cleric's disagreement with the latest plan to transfer sovereignty from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqis.

Jalal Talabani met in Najaf with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who complained about loopholes in the plan, focusing on what he called the lack of grass-roots Iraqi voter participation and the lack of Islamic influence in the constitution.

The president mingles with soldiers during his surprise visit to Iraq.
The president mingles with soldiers during his surprise visit to Iraq.

The transition plan -- announced earlier this month by the coalition-picked Governing Council -- calls for regional caucuses to pick a national assembly by the end of May.

The assembly is to choose a transitional government by the end of June. Sovereignty would be transferred from the coalition to Iraqis in July. The constitution would be written and democratic elections would be held by the end of 2005.

Sistani's views are important since Shiites represent 60 percent of Iraq's population, and his objections could thwart efforts to gain widespread support for transitional plans.

The discussions came as the U.S.-led coalition and the council try to restore stability in the face of daily guerrilla attacks and credibility to the U.S.-led efforts at nation building.

Other developments

• A roadside bomb hit three trucks affiliated with the U.S. military Thursday as they traveled on the western outskirts of Baghdad, Coalition Provisional Authority sources said. There were no injuries. Two contractor trucks and a military truck were engulfed in flames, causing authorities to temporarily the highway.

The Italian Embassy in Baghdad shows damage caused by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The Italian Embassy in Baghdad shows damage caused by a rocket-propelled grenade.

• Troops and their families and employers will soon find out if they will be affected by the Pentagon's latest mobilization of 17,000 reservists for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, nearly 8,000 reservists have been alerted for deployment to Iraq and around 700 for deployment to Afghanistan. The announcements affect Army and Air Force National Guard and Reserves as well as Navy and Marine Corps Reserves. (Full story)

• Late Wednesday, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the Italian Embassy in Baghdad, causing minor damage to the building's second floor, according to Italian officials. No one was inside the building at the time of the attack, which happened around 11:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m. EST).

CNN's Jane Arraf, Walter Rodgers, Alphonso Van Marsh, Barbara Starr, and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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