BAGHDAD — President Bush shocked troops here Thursday by unexpectedly crashing their Thanksgiving dinner, in an extraordinarily secretive visit that underscored both his commitment to prosecute a war against tenacious guerrilla insurgents and the tense state of security in the Iraqi capital.
The president crept out of his ranch near Crawford, Texas, without notifying most of his press corps and arrived aboard a darkened Air Force One at 5:30 p.m. at Baghdad International Airport -- where a DHL cargo plane recently returned after takeoff after guerrillas pierced its wing with rockets during takeoff.
The trip, which made Bush the first U.S. president to visit Iraq, was so guardedly choreographed that senior officials of the U.S.-led occupation authority said they had not detected intensified security, as they routinely have for less senior officials.
"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," Bush told 600 soldiers with the Army's 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 82nd Airborne Division. "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."
The 2 1/2-hour drop-in came as the Bush administration confronted recent polls showing the American public's declining confidence in his handling of a stubborn war against a largely faceless enemy, and less than a year before the 2004 presidential election. It was greeted with raucous glee by soldiers in the Bob Hope Dining Facility, who leaped atop chairs and tables, yelling, "Hoo-ah!" But Iraqis were deeply divided about the trip, and presidential critics decried it as a campaign gimmick.
For some, the clandestine journey that built to a triumphant arrival was reminiscent of the president's landing in May on an aircraft carrier festooned with a banner that read, "Mission Accomplished," a slogan the president later disowned amid rising American casualties. Some observers said both events bore the imprint of Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor.
It is nevertheless "an act of considerable political panache," said Fred Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University.
"This is very Bush-Rovian, to really seize the agenda, particularly when you seem to be slipping," Greenstein said. "He's been under fire for seeming to be callous or indifferent to troop casualties. What he's done, on a low-news national holiday, is make a terrific splash. Nobody would deny the value of the chief executive being there to pay tribute to and buck up the troops on Thanksgiving Day.... I don't see any downside."
Bush also met Thursday with members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, including Iraqi National Congress faction leader Ahmad Chalabi, a senior occupation official said. The president urged them to "protect the rights of the minority," he said later, referring to Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis.
Introducing Bush to the troops, L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation authority's civilian administrator, said he had Thanksgiving greetings from the president, glanced offstage, then added, "Let's see if we've got anyone more senior here." As Bush walked in, soldiers erupted into a standing ovation, peppered with hoots and cheers.
"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," he quipped.
"We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a brutal dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush said, wearing a jacket bearing the 1st Armored Division's "Old Ironsides" patch.
Entering the hall, a tear visible in his eye, was "an emotional moment," Bush said afterward.
Then, in a military tradition in which senior officers serve their subordinates at Thanksgiving, the commander in chief doled out helpings, saying, "What do you want?" to soldiers who tucked into platefuls of turkey, shrimp, ham, prime rib, Cornish hen and an array of starches, vegetables and pies.
"It's got to be a lonely moment for them," Bush told reporters after leaving Baghdad. "I felt like at this point, that it ... would help them to see their president."
"It shows that he cares about us and is thinking about us. It's not easy being here," said 1st Armored Division Staff Sgt. Gerrie Stokes Holloman, 34, of Baltimore. "For the most part, people are tired and want to go home. But the support and encouragement we get from our leadership builds a bond."
Pvt. Stephen Henderson was dumbfounded. "I've never been so surprised. I had no idea -- not a clue," said Henderson, a 19-year-old from Inglewood with the 1st Armored Division. "I almost forgot I was even here."
Baghdad residents offered more mixed views.