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President Bush Visit to Troops in Iraq

November 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Now, the president’s Thanksgiving visit to Iraq. Here are excerpts from his remarks to 600 very surprised soldiers gathered for dinner in the Bob Hope dining hall at Baghdad’s airport.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we’re proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you. (Cheers and applause)

You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq, so that we don’t have to face them in our own country. You’re defeating Saddam’s henchmen, so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom. You’re engaged in a difficult mission. Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will. They hope we will run.

We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins. (Cheers and applause) I have a message for the Iraqi people: You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever. (Cheers and applause)

The United States and our coalition will help you… help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We’ll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done. (Cheers and applause)

Each one of you has answered a great call, participating in an historic moment in world history. You live by a code of honor, of service to your nation, with the safety and the security of your fellow citizens. Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth. I’m proud to be your commander in chief. I bring greetings from America. May God bless you all.(Cheers and applause) May God bless America.

RAY SUAREZ: For more, we’re joined by Christian Caryl of Newsweek magazine. I spoke with him earlier today from Baghdad.

RAY SUAREZ: Christian Caryl, welcome back to the program. Did anyone even have an inkling, were there any rumors that an impromptu presidential visit was possible?

CHRISTIAN CARYL: No. There were absolutely no rumors at all, and I think everyone here was caught completely by surprise, to be perfectly honest.

RAY SUAREZ: Were there any signs in Iraq on the ground that things were more buttoned down, that there was a more heightened security stance in order to get the president safely in and out of the country?

CHRISTIAN CARYL: Nothing at all. I would say there was no inkling of anything like that. What we did see today was a big tent being set up at the airport for the festivities that we knew were going to be taking place. We received press notices that ambassador Bremer, the head of the coalition provisional authority, would be eating with the troops — nothing out of the ordinary. It was really quite a stroke by the Bush administration.

RAY SUAREZ: Once word started to get out that he had been to the country and probably had already gone by the time people started to hear about it, were there any interesting reactions, either from rank and file Iraqis or from American forces in Iraq?

CHRISTIAN CARYL: Oh, you know, it’s very hard to gauge that. I think this was extremely heartening to the American troops on the ground I think they got something out of the visit even if 600 were present for the dinner with President Bush. But you know a lot of the troops that I’ve spoken to hear feel a bit deserted, a bit forgotten, so in that respect I think it was a big help for the president and soldiers on the ground.

RAY SUAREZ: After the president left Baghdad, was it just another night in the Iraqi capital, were there sounds of gunfire, mortars being fired, that sort of thing?

CHRISTIAN CARYL: Well there were a couple of mortar impacts shortly after we heard about the president’s visit. We were all watching some of the first images of his visit, and then off in the distance we heard the boom, boom, boom of mortars, which, to be quite honest, has become such a routine occurrence here in Iraq that nobody really — here in Baghdad that nobody really pays much attention. So absolutely, it was really a remarkably normal evening in that respect.

RAY SUAREZ: I understand you have just come back to the capital from the capital of the north, you might say, Mosul, what’s going on up there?

CHRISTIAN CARYL: Well, Mosul is a very interesting place. I would say what’s going on there is a very, very noticeable upsurge of violence against coalition forces — and very important — because it doesn’t always make the headlines — against their Iraqi allies on the ground, like the Iraqi police, Iraqi human rights activists, some judges, people like that. And this upsurge in violence is all the more remarkable, because until recently, Mosul was one of the most peaceful parts of Iraq.

The commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, Major Gen. David H. Petraeus, earned a lot of kudos there earlier this year for his very, very deft handling of the political and military situation on the ground in that part of Iraq, and for a long time we didn’t hear anything at all about attacks there, but within the past, I would say, about a month and a half, there has been a very, very noticeable up-tick in violence there, which has now culminated in the death of 17 American soldiers in that collision of helicopters that we all heard a lot about a couple of weeks ago.

It was the single biggest day of losses in the conflict so far. And then while I was in Mosul with photographer Gary Knight, we just arrived and we heard about the killing of the two American soldiers in their car in a traffic jam in a subsequent attack on their body by a bunch of enraged people apparently.

RAY SUAREZ: Christian Caryl from Newsweek magazine, thanks for being with us.