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President Bush Made a Surprise Visit to Baghdad to Meet with New Leadership

June 13, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: The White House originally said President Bush and his top aides would be at Camp David again today, holding a video conference with officials of the new Iraqi government. Instead, after a secret overnight flight to Baghdad, the president was taking a helicopter from Baghdad Airport to the heavily-secured Green Zone to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki face-to-face.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Thanks for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: The president’s five-hour visit came less than a week after a U.S. air strike killed insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Maliki succeeded in filling the all-important
security posts in his cabinet.

White House aides said the president had been planning such a surprise visit for a month, to be taken as soon as Maliki completed his cabinet.

After meeting privately, the two men and senior members of the new Iraqi government held the scheduled video conference between Baghdad and Camp David. After that, they met with reporters.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Mr. Prime minister, thank you for this opportunity to visit with your cabinet. I have expressed our country’s desire to work with you, but I appreciate you recognize
the fact that the future of your country is in your hands.

The decisions you and your cabinet make will be determinant as to whether or not a country succeeds, that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.

I’m impressed by the cabinet that you’ve assembled; you’ve assembled people from all parts of your country, representing different religions, and different histories, and traditions. And yet, the cabinet here represents the entire Iraqi people.

And I appreciate your commitment to representing the people of Iraq. I’m impressed by the strength of your character and your desire to succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: The president told reporters about the meeting they’d just held and assured the prime minister of continued American support.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We discussed — I discussed earlier with the prime minister, and here with his cabinet, and with members of my cabinet, the strategy necessary to have a country that is capable of answering to the needs of the people.

We discussed the security strategy. We discussed an economic strategy and a reconstruction strategy, and all of it makes sense to me.

And so I’ve come to not only look you in the eye; I’ve also come to tell you that, when America gives its word, it will keep its word. And it’s in our interest that Iraq succeed. It’s not only in the interest of the Iraqi people; it’s in the interest of the American people and for people who love freedom.

Iraq is a part of the war on terror. Iraq is a central front on that war. And when Iraqi succeeds in having a government that — of and by and for the people of Iraq, you will have dealt a serious
blow to those who have a vision of darkness, who don’t believe in liberty, who are willing to kill the innocent in order to achieve a political objective.

And so, Mr. Prime Minister, I want to thank you for giving me and my cabinet a chance to hear from you personally and a chance to meet the members of this team you’ve assembled. It’s an impressive group of men and women and, if given the right help, I’m convinced you will succeed and so will the world.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through translator): Thank you, Mr. President. We emphasize that our meeting and discussions was constructive and fruitful, and it’s the basis of a good and everlasting relationship.

Our success in forming this diverse cabinet (inaudible) national unity government, we hope that it’s the beginning of a most (inaudible) that we hope will be achieved as a result of involving all the elements of the Iraqi people, the Shia, the Sunni, Arabs, Kurds, Turkey, the Syrians and Christians.

We insist on succeeding, and we must win over terror. I would like to say and offer an official (inaudible) to all those who have sacrificed their lives on behalf of the Iraqi people, to the families in the United States and British, and all the countries that have participated in rescuing Iraq from dictatorship. And I’m very grateful.

Rallying the troops

MARGARET WARNER: The president ended his Baghdadvisit with an emotional speech to some of the U.S.troops in Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Ithank you all very much for your service to our country. Your sacrifice isnoble, and your sacrifice is important.

I understand it's --long deployments are tough. They're tough on you, and they're tough on yourfamilies. And so the first thing I want to tell you is: The American people areincredibly grateful for what you do, and I bring their greetings and theirthanks for the sacrifices you and your family make.

These are historictimes. The mission that you're accomplishing here in Iraq will go down in the historybooks as an incredibly important moment in the history of freedom and peace, anincredibly important moment of doing our duty to secure our homeland.

I truly believe thework that you're doing here is laying the foundation of peace for generationsto come, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I have come today topersonally show our nation's commitment to a free Iraq. My message to the Iraqipeople is this: Seize the moment. Seize this opportunity to develop agovernment of and by and for the people.

And I also have amessage to the Iraqi people that, when Americagives a commitment, Americawill keep its commitment. There are going to be tough days ahead and more sacrificefor Americans, as well as Iraqis, but I come here -- come away from herebelieving that the will is strong and the desire to meet the needs of thepeople is real and tangible.

Our military willstay on the offense. We will continue to hunt down people like Mr. Zarqawi andbring them to justice so...

We will continue totrain the Iraqis so that they can help the unity government secure the peace. I'vetold the American people that, as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down.

The stakes are high,and what happens here in Iraqreaches far beyond the borders of Iraq. The war on terror really is-- will be addressed by strong actions by our intelligence and militaryservices to bring to justice those who would do us harm.

I've told theAmerican people we will defeat the enemy overseas so we do not have to facethem here at home.

It's a moment -- thisis a time where the world can turn one way or the other, where the world can bea better place or a more dangerous place. And the United States of America andcitizens such as yourself are dedicated to making sure that the world we leavebehind is a better place for all.

It is such an honorto be here.

It is -- it is suchan honor to be with you. May God bless you all. May God bless your work. MayGod bless your families. And may God continue to bless the United States of America.Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Meanwhile,outside the Green Zone today, Iraqi security troops fanned out in force across Baghdad, makingpreparations to implement Maliki's new security plan for the capital tomorrow.

A surprise to everyone

MARGARET WARNER: Now, more on the president's trip and hismeetings with Iraqi leaders. We get that from Dexter Filkins, a Baghdad correspondent forthe New York Times. I spoke with him earlier today.

Dexter, welcome. Thanksfor being with us. We are told that this trip -- most of President Bush's aidesdidn't even know about this trip. Was it a total surprise to the Iraqis, aswell?

DEXTER FILKINS,Baghdad Correspondent, New York Times: Total surprise to everybody. You know,the American employees of the embassy were told to go home at noon and weren'tgiven a reason. The prime minister, Prime Minister Maliki, didn't know that PresidentBush was coming until five minutes before he arrived at the presidentialpalace. He was completely surprised.

MARGARET WARNER: Now,you know the terrain there. The president -- I think this is the first time,even though he's been in Iraqbefore, that he's actually been outside the airport. What would he have seen onthat six- or seven-minute helicopter ride from the airport into the Green Zone?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,first of all, the president took a helicopter from the airport to the GreenZone. He didn't drive the road. The airport road, as a lot of people know, is anotorious place where there are suicide bombings there everyday.

But even as he tookthe helicopter, he got to see quite a bit. He flew over the Green Zone. Hecould see the power plants in Dora, which is one of the most insurgent-riddenneighborhoods in the whole city. He flew over the buildings where Saddam Husseinand his former henchmen are now being tried.

So he got a good lookat the city. And Baghdadis a really -- it's a really extraordinary sight from the sky.

MARGARET WARNER: Andwhat were the security precautions? Like, I know they're always tight, but whatextra did they do in the security arena?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,first of all, nobody knew about it, but when you went into the Green Zonetoday, there were Humvees, armored Humvees, turreted Humvees, Bradleys,soldiers, way more soldiers than usual. That was the main thing. I mean, theGreen Zone, where he was, is pretty well-locked down on any day, but there werejust a lot more soldiers. You know, he had a pretty good bubble around him, aswell.

Addressing the Iraqi people

MARGARET WARNER: Now, onto the substance of meetings. Thepresident said they talked about security, about the economy, aboutreconstruction. What else -- what can you tell us about what came out of themeetings?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,I think the purpose of this meeting was for the president, Bush, to reassurethe Iraqi government, "We're behind you, we support you." But I thinkreally, the other purpose of it -- and it's somewhat contradictory -- is,"Look, you're a real government. You've been elected by your people. It'sa four-year parliament. You're on your own, and it's time that you start takingover more responsibility and we start doing less."

And I think that wasa lot of it today. And I think we'll probably see that play out, you know, moreand more over the next several weeks.

MARGARET WARNER: Anddo you know if they talked at all in specifics about when American troops couldbegin to dial back?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,that's not something they're not going to come out and talk about. I think theysay -- and I think this is true -- that those decisions ultimately are going tobe determined by the conditions on the ground.

One of the thingsthat was announced today -- actually, before the president arrived -- wasthey're going to begin -- the Iraqi government, with the American troops, aregoing to begin a big security crackdown in Baghdad. And that's, you know, with 75,000 troopsand police, and Iraqi and American.

And so, you know, thegoal is, is that you start to bring the country under control, to get all ofthe communities in Iraq, Sunni, Shia and Kurd, who are part of this government,behind the government, some of the violence starts to die away, and then theAmericans can start going home. That's the plan.

MARGARET WARNER: Now,were you and your colleagues able to talk to any senior people in the Iraqigovernment today? And, if so, did they say they were surprised -- I mean,pleased by the surprise visit? Did they think it would help boost this newgovernment? What was the reaction?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,no, the short answer is no, because what the announcement was here a couple ofdays ago, even this morning, was that there was going to be a joint cabinetmeeting between the American cabinet and the Iraqi cabinet on a teleconference,on a videoconference.

And so all of thesenior members of the Iraqi government were told to show up today at theAmerican embassy, so they didn't know why they were going, and suddenly theywere told the president was there. But that's where they all went today. Theywere all there this morning kind of standing around waiting to do this cabinetmeeting over video.

MARGARET WARNER: How aboutthe Iraqi public? Was this shown on Iraqi TV? Have you picked up any reaction?

DEXTER FILKINS: Itwas shown on Iraqi television, and not as much as -- not as much as you wouldthink. That's a trickier question. Mr. Maliki, who needs all of the supportthat he can get, the prime minister, is probably, the way things are inBaghdad, not going to get much of a boost from being photographed or beingfilmed standing next to Mr. Bush.

He's not verypopular. Frankly, the United States isn't very popular here right now. Baghdad in particular hasbecome a terribly, terribly violent place, and I think people want to seeresults on the ground. And I think they're going to wait to judge Maliki, butPresident Bush is not a very popular guy right now here.

Securing peace

MARGARET WARNER: We had Zalmay Khalilzad on the program onFriday, the U.S. ambassadorthere, and he was talking, as you have, about Baghdad and how really dangerous it's become,saying it was much worse than it was several months ago. We have seen othersecurity crackdowns. What, if anything, is new and different about the onethat's going to begin tomorrow?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well,I mean, I think that's the $64,000 question. They have had these securitycrackdowns before; some of them have been impressive, at least insofar asthey've sent troops into neighborhoods. There's been fighting. They've arrestedpeople.

They've had thesethings before, and, you know, we've literally had to drive around the citylooking for police officers and soldiers to see what they're doing. So I thinkwe're going to find out at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow if this one's any different.

The number they'rethrowing around is 75,000. That's not an increase. I mean, that's how manypolice -- if you add up all the American soldiers and the police officers andthe Iraqi soldiers that are here, there's about 75,000. So they haven'tincreased the number of troops for this operation, so, you know, we'll see.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally,it's been nearly a week since Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. Is there anydetectable difference in the atmosphere in Baghdad?

DEXTER FILKINS: There'snot. I mean, I think -- you know, Baghdad-- nobody's upset. Really, you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody upset thatZarqawi was dead here. He's done a lot of killing.

But Baghdad is, neighborhood by neighborhood, very,very close to total anarchy. The amount of violence is absolutelyextraordinary, and it's not just insurgent violence. It's violence by themilitias; it's kidnapping; it's murder.

It's really, reallydangerous here, as the ambassador said. And so I think that nobody reallyexpects that the killing of one man, even a man as murderous as Zarqawi, couldmake that much of a difference.

MARGARET WARNER: Allright, Dexter Filkins from the New York Times, thanks.