Secrets of the president's trip to Baghdad
By John King
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. John King was among the reporters who traveled with Bush to Baghdad.
CNN's John King
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The symbol of the United States sat blacked out on the tarmac, lights out, window shades down as a man in a white shirt with an unmistakable voice stood in a darkened narrow passageway, greeting the passengers Tuesday as they made their way on board.
"Hi John. Good to see you,'' President Bush said as I passed by. A quick handshake, a trademark joke. I felt rude to keep going after laughing at his joke, answering with a drawn out "noooooo" when he suggested I no longer enjoyed his company.
But we were being rushed to our seats. Told not to turn on any lights. The engines roared. And at 1:52 p.m. Washington time -- 9:52 p.m. Baghdad time -- Air Force One throttled into the sky, engines gunned for a quick ascent.
And so ended five hours and 41 minutes in Baghdad, Iraq, with the president of the United States.
The secret trip was to give Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in the president's words, "a look in the eye" and to see if after so many fits and starts, so many policy and political frustrations, the president might have reason to think Iraq was at -- or at least near -- a turning point.
"I believe [al-Maliki] is as dedicated to advancing freedom in Iraq as you are," Bush told a crowd of predominantly military personnel at the final event of his Baghdad visit. He praised the prime minister and his new Cabinet as being, in Bush's view, committed to maintaining political unity as they address the profound security, economic and sectarian crises facing Iraq.
'Ingredients for success'
Bush's surprise visit, and his first face-to-face session with al-Maliki, came at a time when the Iraqi government is talking of reducing U.S. troop levels from 130,000 now to fewer than 100,000 by the end of 2006. While Bush would love to achieve such a reduction this year -- an election year -- he has been cautious not to embrace that goal because of a recurring cycle of hope followed by setback.
Still, Bush was clearly upbeat after the visit, only his second to Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003.
"The ingredients for success are clearly there," the president said in a 36-minute session with reporters in his office aboard Air Force One shortly after leaving Baghdad.
He described al-Maliki as a "quiet fellow but confident." The prime minister had impressed the president by laying out realistic goals to show the Iraqi people that the new unity government would bring them tangible signs of progress.
The visit was a reminder that the White House hopes Iraq is entering a more stable, optimistic chapter and a reminder of the political toll the war has taken on the president.
His previous visit, also a surprise, was on Thanksgiving Day 2003. Back then, six in 10 Americans said they supported the war; now 55 percent view the invasion as a mistake. Back then, a year from re-election, Bush's approval rating was 55 percent; now it is roughly 20 points lower in surveys by major media organizations.
On Thanksgiving 2003 the U.S. death toll in Iraq was approaching 450; it now is near the 2,500 mark.
"POTUS is on board," is how the journey began on Monday. Wearing a baseball cap and carrying a gym bag, the president announced himself at 8:58 p.m. as he briskly walked up the stairs of Air Force One adjacent to the press cabin.
Eight minutes later we were wheels up, 9:06 p.m. Washington time ... and the direct flight to Baghdad put us on the ground at 8:11 a.m. Tuesday back home -- 4:11 p.m. in the Iraqi capital.
"For obvious reason this has been kept secure," presidential counselor Dan Bartlett told reporters after takeoff. It was Bartlett who over the weekend had contacted reporters and asked them to take the trip as a pool -- meaning they were obliged to share reports with other news organizations -- and warned them the trip would be canceled if word leaked.
Running to helicopters
With all the secrecy came an abundance of security.
Once in Iraq we were told to run from Air Force One to awaiting helicopters. The 747 had arrived in daylight, and many of us were skeptical our secret would be secret very long.
The helicopter rides to the fortified Green Zone took about six minutes. Machine gunners in the aircraft were poised as we flew low over Baghdad neighborhoods. The flights were without incident, as was a very short motorcade from the landing zone to the Republican Palace that serves as the temporary U.S. Embassy.
"Good to see you," al-Maliki said in greeting the president. It was just five minutes after the Iraqi leader had been told he had a special guest. "Thanks for having me," Bush responded.
Aides said only a handful of U.S. government officials were aware of the trip.
If members of the Bush Cabinet had asked Tuesday morning why the president was late for breakfast, Vice President Dick Cheney was ready to tell them he was at a meeting with the president's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and national security adviser Steve Hadley. Both men were at the time of the Cabinet meeting aboard Air Force One approaching Baghdad.
The joke among the senior staff aboard Air Force One was that Hadley and Bolten were least likely to have their cover blown; they were sharing a cabin at Camp David with Cheney, "and so we figured no one was going to come knocking on the door," one of the officials involved said during the trip.
Speaking with reporters on the way home, Bush said his escape was rather easy. As a "notorious" early to bed person, he simply excused himself from Monday night's dinner and said he was retiring for the night.
Instead, the president and his top aides headed to a helicopter ostensibly there to bring some White House staffers back to Washington for the night.
Other highlights of the Q&A session with Bush aboard Air Force One Tuesday afternoon:
Reasons for the trip: The president said he very much wanted to "get a feel for the new Iraqi government" and to see whether it was "stuck in the past" or could set aside resentment and work together. "I came away with a very positive impression," he said.
On Prime Minister al-Maliki: "A serious-minded fellow ... (with) a sense of direction" and clear priorities. "He is a quiet fellow but confident," the president said.
His overriding question on Iraq: "Is there such bitterness because of the past that it is impossible to lead in the future. I didn't detect that."
Worries about commitment: Bush said "to a man" the Iraqi leadership was worried about a withdrawal of U.S. troops before the Iraqis are ready. Bush said they follow the U.S. political debate. "They wondered whether or not there is a commitment. ... They worried to a person we would leave before they are capable of defending themselves." His response? "I assured them that they didn't have to worry."
Troop levels: Bush said it is fine the Iraqis are setting goals of fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops by end of the year. But he said that even those characterizations are "conditions based." Bush also said that while he would love to reduce troop levels, he wasn't prepared to be any more specific until the new Iraqi national security team was in place and had detailed discussions with U.S. Gen. George Casey, commander of multinational forces in Iraq.
Election-year pressure: "I am going to do what I think is right," Bush said, "I want to succeed." The president said he understands there are people who are concerned about "the really short-term history. I am concerned about the long-term history."
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