US President George W. Bush was back in the US early yesterday after braving the threat of missiles over Baghdad to join 600 troops for an emotional Thanksgiving dinner in Iraq, in a trip arranged under strict secrecy.
The US president landed in Waco, Texas, early yesterday morning. He was expected to drive by motorcade to his ranch in nearby Crawford. His arrival followed a lightning visit to Iraq aimed to boost troops' dwindling morale on a key US holiday.
News of Thursday's visit was not even released until Air Force One had already left, for fear of the sort of missile fire that forced an emergency landing by a DHL civilian cargo jet last week.
Troops of the 1st Armored Division, which patrols the area around the Iraqi capital, leapt to their feet, threw their arms in the air and cheered when the surprise guest arrived at their US holiday feast on Thursday.
"I was looking for a warm meal somewhere, thanks for inviting me to dinner," said the US commander in chief, wearing a blue shirt and a gray jacket and with his eyes moist, to deafening applause from the troops.
"I can't think of a finer group of folks to be having Thanksgiving dinner with," Bush, with brightly colored military standards behind him, told the soldiers.
Bush was addressing soldiers from the 1st Armored and 82nd Airborne divisions and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in a huge hangar-like mess hall at Baghdad airport.
"I bring a message on behalf of America: we thank you for your service," he told the troops, who have come under regular attack during the persistent insurgency that has dogged the US-led occupation for the past seven months.
The US president delivered a defiant message to insurgents who have peppered the coalition military with guerrilla attacks, causing more deaths in action since he declared major combat over on May 1, than in the preceding six-week invasion.
"We didn't charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, and pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," Bush said.
"We will prevail. We will win because our cause is just ... We will win because you're part of the finest military ever assembled. We will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom," Bush said.
"I have a message for the Iraqi people," he added. "You have the opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country ... The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever."
During his brief visit to Iraq, Bush also met with members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, some of whom said later that Bush had expressed willingness to change his administration's transition plan.
The Washington Post yesterday said that in an attempt to appease Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Washington was now considering holding elections for a provisional Iraqi government, rather than having its members selected by regional caucuses, a plan which Sistani reportedly rejected.
Bush also had a message of support for his troops, far from their families and loved ones on a major US holiday.
"We are proud of you. America stands solidly behind you," he said. "You're defeating Saddam's henchmen so the Iraqi people can live in peace and freedom. You're helping calm trouble in a violent part of the world."