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Bush breezes over Baghdad

Aboard Air Force One, June 6 (Reuters): President George W. Bush took a quick tour of Baghdad yesterday — from an altitude of 31,000 feet.

With four F-18 fighter jets as his escort, Bush surveyed the American-controlled capital from the safety of a window seat on Air Force One, which flew by at a ground speed of 467 miles per hour.

It was a lot to soak up in a matter of seconds.

Seated on a bench next to secretary of state Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff Andrew Card, Bush pointed out key sites, including the “leadership target” hit on the first night of the war. The target was President Saddam Hussein, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

“He showed a real familiarity with the sights of Baghdad, the topography of Baghdad,” White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said of the President, who received daily briefing during the war on troop movements and military targets.

It was a picture-perfect clear day for the air tour. Air Force One pivoted slightly toward the city, making it easier for Bush and others on the plane to take in the sights.

Bush was able to make out Saddam Airport, Saddam City and other landmarks, Fleischer said. Bush was in Iraqi air space for a total of 66 minutes.

F-18s from the USS Nimitz stood guard off each wing. Fleischer said the planes were there for security reasons, but did not elaborate.

Fleischer said Bush had not considered making a stop in Iraq during his week-long trip, which included stops in neighbouring Jordan, as well as Egypt and Qatar.

“It’s not the purpose of this trip. We’re going home,” Fleischer said before Air Force One passed over Baghdad. Besides security concerns, a Presidential visit might have stoked controversy over postwar living conditions and what so far has been a futile US hunt for alleged weapons of mass destruction.

By cutting across Iraq, Bush was able to make his return flight non-stop. When told of the short-cut, Bush said, “That sounds great,” according to Fleischer. “It was as simple as that. And the decision was made therefore to fly over Iraq He was very happy to, one, get home quicker, avoid the refuel. And two, of course, he was very interested in seeing Iraq,” Fleischer said.

Bush had been scheduled to refuel in England and possibly meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who just got back from a visit to Iraq.

“It is in many ways a remarkable flight, given the fact that just a short time ago, when our nation was at war, the only way to fly over Iraq was in a fighter jet or a military aircraft that was on an actual military mission,” he said.

“Hopefully this is a harbinger of other flights to come as the future of Iraq brightens,” Fleischer added. He would not say when Bush would pay a formal visit to the country.

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