A symbolic visit cloaked in secrecy
It was a visit designed to attract maximum publicity – but cloaked in secrecy. President George Bush slipped out of the White House via a side door after dark to catch his secret flight on Sunday night.
On the Labor Day public holiday in the United States, Mr Bush was accompanied on his third trip to Iraq by Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He sped to Andrews air force base guarded by a single car, rather than his usual motorcade. In Iraq, he met his military commanders, including General David Petraeus, as well as the US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. He also held talks with the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
The carefully choreographed visit to Iraq comes as Mr Bush deals with rising pressure even from Democrats and a few members of his party to begin setting a timetable for drawing down American troop levels in Iraq. By bringing Al-Maliki, who is Shi'ite, into Sunni-dominated Anbar province he was also trying to demonstrate the heavily criticised leader's ability to reach across the sectarian divide.
The White House was braced for criticism that the visit was merely an extravagant gimmick to bolster the President's ahead of a showdown with Congress on troop levels.
He was confined to the air base for the duration of his time in Iraq. "There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."
Next week, both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker must testify before Congress on troop levels. A detailed report from the administration on progress on Iraq, both in terms of security and political reconciliation, is due before Congress by a deadline of 15 September. The lack of headway by the government of Al-Maliki on political reconciliation has spurred particular frustration in Washington.
Shortly after alighting from Air Force One the president said: "I urge members of both parties in Congress to listen to what they have to say, Congress shouldn't jump to conclusions until the general and the ambassador report."
In a warning shot to politicians at home, Mr Bush, who later left Iraq bound for an economic summit of Southeast Asian and Pacific leaders in Australia, signalled he would not be rushed into a decision on troop withdrawals. He told marines his next steps "will be based on a calm assessment by our military commanders on the conditions on the ground – not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media".