Posted 8:00pm December 4
by Vanessa Maltin
U-WIRE Washington Bureau
Stunned expressions filled a makeshift military base at the Baghdad International Airport as President Bush surprised 600 U.S. troops for Thanksgiving dinner.
The trip, top-secret and in the works for almost six weeks, allowed Bush to assure troops their work in Iraq is creating peace in a part of the world stricken with violence and terror and helping the Iraqi people taste the fruits of freedom.
Hoping to boost morale of fatigued troops, the trip, lasting only 2 1/2 hours, represents the first travel of a U.S. president to Baghdad. Vaguely introduced by U.S. administrator to Iraq, Paul Bremer, Bush came on stage and told troops he was looking for a warm meal and thanked them for inviting him.
Bush quietly left his Texas ranch Wednesday afternoon and returned to Washington, D.C. to pick up his staff and switch planes in a secured hanger. A small media pool traveled with the president, but was not allowed to transmit any information until Air Force One had departed Baghdad.
In his message, aimed at reaching not only the over 130,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, but also the Iraqi opposition, Bush acknowledged that the situation is a difficult one, but that U.S. will prevail because “the cause is just”.
Journalists who accompanied Bush on the trip reported the president saying that he could not think of a finer group with whom to have Thanksgiving dinner. Wearing a military jacket with the patch of the 1st Armored Division, Bush said, “I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we are proud of you and American stands solidly behind you.”
Once leaving Baghdad, Bush spoke to reporters on Air Force One. According to journalists on the trip Bush told them that it was an emotional moment for him to walk into the room filled with troops.
“The energy level was beyond belief. I mean, I’ve been in some excited crowds before, but this place truly erupted,” Bush said. “I could see the first look of amazement and then look of appreciation on the kids’ face.”
Pete Stephenson, a student at San Jose State University and a member of the Army reserves was informed in October that his unit will be deployed to Iraq early next year. While he said he isn’t really sure what to expect when he gets to Iraq, that President Bush’s trip helped to ease some of his concerns for the deployment.
“If Bush can go to Iraq and get home safely, then I’m sure I can too,” Stephenson said with a chuckle.
The trip, at a time when nearly 200 U.S. troops have been killed since Bush declared the major conflict over on May 1, 2003, may help Bush with his 2004 re-election campaign. With sharp criticism coming from Democratic candidates on Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, the trip served to ease tensions for the holiday and allow U.S. service men and women to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with the man who gave their orders to go to Iraq.
Jon Ostrower, sophomore at the George Washington University and a member of GW Students for Wesley Clark, said that while he doesn’t support Bush’s presidency, that Bush did the right thing by going to Iraq.
“I think it’s fair to assume that this trip was not void of political motivations, but that’s the power of the presidency when you have a 747 at your disposal,” Ostrower said. “But Bush did the right thing for our troops.”