| President Bush poses with a soldier for a picture at the Baghdad International Airport. (AP)
Tikrit, Nov. 28 (Reuters): Awesome, courageous, a good move for morale, no way — these were some of the reactions of American soldiers when President George W. Bush flew secretly into Iraq for Thanksgiving yesterday.
“That is absolutely awesome,” said Sergeant Aaron Hildernbrandt, from Claremont, Florida, as he watched news of Bush’s two-and-a-half hour swing-through on television in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
“I think that shows real personal courage,” said his companion Sergeant Gilbert Nail of Oklahoma, both of whom had just returned from a patrol through Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
Bush secretly left his Texas ranch late on Wednesday and flew on Air Force One to Baghdad, where he helped serve Thanksgiving lunch to around 600 soldiers at Baghdad International Airport.
The lightning presidential visit seemed to go some way to dispelling an impression of low morale among US troops in Iraq given by many recent reports.
“I think this is a great move. For him to actually come here and spend time with the troops on the holiday. This is a good move,” said Private Michael Debratta from New York as he manned a checkpoint in central Baghdad.
“This is definitely a good move for morale. It makes us feel better that our leader is actually here on a holiday.”
Bush’s bold visit was kept secret from all but a very small pool of White House reporters who travelled with him on the long flight from the US.
The President, wearing a grey military zip-up top, was welcomed by Paul Bremer, the US-appointed governor of Iraq, and helped serve food to a group of stunned soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st Armored Division.
They cheered and shouted as Bush, who is the overall commander of US forces, entered the military mess at the airport, and whooped and whistled as he made a short address.
“I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere,” Bush said. “Thanks for inviting me to dinner... I can’t think of a finer group of folks to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all.”
Lieutenant Colonel Steve Russell, the commander of the 1-22 Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division, which is leading the hunt for Saddam around Tikrit, was astonished at Bush’s visit.
“No way,” he told a reporter when told of the trip.
“I think that’s great. It sends a strong message from the commander-in-chief that we’re focused on winning. It’s a real morale booster.” The US has more than 130,000 troops in Iraq. In recent months they have faced a deepening insurgency from loyalists of the former regime, who almost daily set off explosions or fire mortars at US positions.
More than 180 US soldiers have been killed since Washington declared an end to major combat on May 1. But despite those losses, soldiers said today’s visit from Bush was just the sort of thing to keep them upbeat.
“It’s a total morale booster,” said Nail in Tikrit. “I didn’t get to see him but what matters is that he cares enough to come and visit.”
Britain’s Times newspaper hailed Bush’s trip as “one of the most daring stunts in modern American history”.
“Probably not since the American Civil War, when battles raged only a few miles from Washington, has the incumbent of the White House deliberately placed himself in so much danger,” the newspaper’s diplomatic editor wrote.
“Election raid on Baghdad,” declared a front-page headline in France’s Left-wing newspaper Liberation, beside a photograph of Bush carrying a platter laden with roast turkey and fruit and surrounded by US troops.
“This ‘Baghdad coup’, primarily intended for the US public, was a brilliantly conceived and executed piece of election propaganda,” the newspaper said.
But opinions on the trip differed in other sections of the press, with Britain’s tabloid Daily Mirror newspaper and The Independent both running a similar photograph of Bush holding a platter with the headline: “The Turkey has landed”.
In Baghdad, discussions were under way on amendments to a new US-backed plan to hand sovereignty back to Iraqis by July, after the Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the political roadmap paid too little heed to Islam and did not include enough Iraqi involvement.