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Iraq Transition

Bush in Baghdad: 'Seize the moment'

President surprises troops, Iraqi officials in show of support


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide



BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- President Bush capped a surprise trip to Baghdad on Tuesday by visiting U.S. troops and urging Iraqis to "seize the moment" and rally behind their new government.

"I come away from here believing that the will is strong and the desire to meet the needs of the people is real and tangible," Bush said after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the new leader's Cabinet.

The U.S. president addressed Iraqi officials during a teleconference with members of his own Cabinet, who were at Camp David, Maryland.

"I've come to not only look you in the eye, I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word," Bush told al-Maliki as cameras flashed.

"And it's in our interest that Iraq succeed. It's not only in the interest of the Iraqi people, it's in the interest of the American people, and for people who love freedom."

The whirlwind visit came less than a week after U.S. forces killed the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in an airstrike north of Baghdad.

A statement posted online Tuesday and attributed to the purported new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, threatens attacks on Baghdad's Green Zone and warns that al-Zarqawi "left behind lions." (Full story)

Bush told the troops that he came to Baghdad "to look Prime Minister [al-]Maliki in the eyes to determine whether or not he is as dedicated to a free Iraq as you are -- and I believe he is."

"I have come today to personally show our nation's commitment to a free Iraq," he said. "My message to the Iraqi people is this: Seize the moment. Seize this opportunity to develop a government of and by and for the people."

The military crowd applauded loudly when Bush said, "We will continue to hunt down people like Mr. [al-]Zarqawi and bring them to justice."

He praised the troops for their service and "for making history," telling them they were working to spread peace and freedom across the Middle East.

Bush made the trip in a show of support for the new Iraqi government, finalized last week with the approval of al-Maliki's choices for three key Cabinet posts -- defense and interior ministers and minister of state for national security.

Biden: Showing support not enough

The summit came on the heels of a poll showing most Americans believe the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was a mistake. (Full story)

After a briefing members of Bush's Cabinet on Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said "the administration thus far has not had a strategy for victory." (More from Democrats)

Biden said he hoped the president "went with a message to deal with three things everyone knows has to be dealt with," Biden said.

He said those were controlling militias and the infiltration of security forces; getting greater Sunni support for the government; and holding a regional conference to get "the powers in the region to agree to keep hands off Iraq."

Bush and his top officials had begun a two-day summit at Camp David on Monday to discuss Iraq's progress and had scheduled the teleconference with al-Maliki for Tuesday morning.

But Bush secretly left for Iraq on Monday night to see al-Maliki in person. ( Watch for details on Bush's cover story for sneaking out of the country -- 3:02)

White House officials said the summit was scheduled at Camp David rather than at the White House to ensure it was easier for the president to get out of Washington undetected.

Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said the trip had been planned over the past month by six White House officials, whom Bartlett described as a "very close circle of people."

Bartlett told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush had wanted to come to Iraq as soon as all positions in al-Maliki's government were chosen.

By meeting face to face, Bush and al-Maliki would be able to "establish a closer relationship than you can just over a telephone," Bartlett said.

Bartlett declined to say whether Bush and al-Maliki were to discuss the withdrawal of any U.S. troops.

U.S. officials told al-Maliki of Bush's arrival in Baghdad only after the president's Nighthawk helicopter had landed in the former Green Zone following a six-minute trip from Baghdad International Airport.

Danger requires secrecy

Bartlett said the secrecy of the trip was necessary because of Iraq's tenuous security situation.

Underscoring that point, one Iraqi police officer was killed and five others wounded Tuesday when two roadside bombs hit their patrol near a bridge in southeastern Baghdad, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said.

Gunmen also killed Hani Aref Jassim, a professor at Baghdad University's College of Engineering, in western Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood.

And Iraqi police on Tuesday found six bodies shot dead and showing signs of torture in neighborhoods of the capital, an Interior Ministry official said.

Bush last visited Baghdad in November 2003 for a surprise Thanksgiving dinner with troops.

Bush has invited the Iraqi leader to visit the White House, but the trip has not been finalized, Bartlett said.

Up to 70,000 troops to patrol Baghdad

Bush's trip comes as at least 70,000 troops -- most of them Iraqi -- prepare to deploy Wednesday on the streets of Baghdad in an effort to bring security to the Iraqi capital, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

The additional security will include Iraqi police, police commandos, soldiers and emergency police as well as U.S.-led coalition forces, the ministry said.

The forces will secure checkpoints on Baghdad's roads as well as enforce a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. There also will be a ban on civilians carrying weapons.

The forces will wear new uniforms to distinguish them from insurgents, who often wear police or military outfits to carry out attacks.

Officials said it's the largest operation in Baghdad since the U.S. turnover to Iraqis in June 2004.

Other developments

  • At least five car bombs exploded Tuesday in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 14 people and wounding 20 others, police and morgue officials said. Police casualties included two among the dead and six wounded.
  • The judge in Saddam Hussein's trial barred the ousted Iraqi leader's half brother, Barzan Hassan al-Tikriti, from the courtroom Tuesday, following disruptions the previous day. (Full story)
  • CNN's John King, Mohammed Tawfeeq and John Vause contributed to this report.

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