CAMP AS SAYILYAH, Qatar—Wrapping up a whirlwind seven-day trip to Europe and the Middle East, President Bush's journey home to Washington took a surprise twist Thursday as he flew over Iraq.
Passing over Baghdad at 31,000 feet, Air Force One's pilot tipped the plane sideways for a better view. Bush pointed out landmarks—including the airport—to members of his staff. Four F/A-18 fighter jets escorted the president's plane, a modified Boeing 747, throughout the one-hour, six-minute flight through Iraqi airspace.
Asked what the president intended by the maneuver, White House spokesman Sean McCormack said: "To demonstrate that Iraq is now free."
Later, however, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the Air Force advised chief of staff Andrew Card that flying over Iraq could get Bush home faster, so Card OK'd the flight shift.
The president "was very happy to, one, get home quicker. ... And two, of course, he was very interested in Iraq," Fleischer said aboard Air Force One as it neared Washington.
Bush's visit to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar wrapped up a frenetic week of travel to Poland, Russia, France, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar. In his first three stops, he sought to repair relationships with U.S. allies that were damaged in the debate over war with Iraq. And in his first visit to the Middle East, the president forcefully inserted himself as the pivotal broker seeking to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Earlier Thursday, in a speech to American troops in Qatar, Bush defended the U.S.-led war to topple the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As questions rise around the world about why no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or ties to al-Qaida have been found after two months of postwar searching, Bush said the hunt went on.
"We recently found two mobile biological-weapons facilities which are capable of producing biological agents," the president said, failing to note that no biological weapons or evidence of their production was found in the facilities.
Bush said Saddam "spent decades hiding tools of mass murder. He knew the inspectors were looking for them. You know better than me he's got a big country in which to hide them. We're on the look. We'll reveal the truth.
"But one thing is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the Iraqi regime is no more."
Earlier, after morning meetings with Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, which waged the war on Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer, the recently appointed U.S. administrator of Iraq, Bush met for nearly an hour with Qatar's ruler, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, a strong supporter of Bush's policies on Iraq and the host of what's now America's military headquarters in the Persian Gulf.
Bush then addressed more than 1,000 troops dressed in desert camouflage at the forward headquarters of CENTCOM outside Doha, Qatar.
"America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished," said Bush, his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up.
After the speech, delivered in an air-conditioned warehouse on a 115-degree day, Bush shook hands and took photographs with the troops.
At the height of the war, roughly 4,000 people were stationed at the Qatar base, which measures about 26 miles around. Support, logistics, and command and control duties were performed from the camp, and troops from the United States, Britain and Australia were stationed here. Only about 2,000 people remain, but U.S. operations in Iraq continue to be run from As Sayilyah.
Earlier Thursday, CENTCOM announced the capture of Ayad Futayyih Khalifa al Rawi, listed as No. 30 from the "Iraqi Top 55" list. He was the chief of staff of the al Quds force, which Saddam set up three years ago as a backup to the regular army.
But that was tempered by somber news that one U.S. soldier was killed and five were wounded in the Iraqi city of Fallujah when an unknown assailant fired at them with a rocket-propelled grenade.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.