BAGHDAD, Iraq—President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Tuesday to assure Iraq's new prime minister that the United States is committed to helping him succeed and end the violence that threatens his new government.
"The decisions you and your Cabinet make will be determinate as to whether or not a country succeeds that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself," Bush told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in their first meeting. "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 will keep its word—that it's in our interest that Iraq succeed."
The trip came as Bush tried to assure Americans that the Iraq war was justifiable and winnable. He had scheduled a two-day summit on the war at Camp David, Md., but after the first day on Monday, he flew to Baghdad.
Bush's visit also came on the heels of some good news for the Iraqi government. Last Wednesday, an U.S. air strike killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida in Iraq. And on Thursday, the Iraqi government named its defense and interior ministers, who are responsible for improving security. The selections ended six months of political wrangling after the Dec. 15 election.
Because of the violence in Baghdad, the White House told only a handful of top advisers about Bush's trip. White House aides described the six-minute helicopter ride from Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone as the most dangerous trip of Bush's presidency.
Even Maliki didn't know Bush was coming until he landed in the Green Zone, the area that houses the Iraqi government and foreign embassies. The prime minister was headed to a room for a scheduled video conference call with Bush from Camp David when he learned that the president was a few blocks away, officials from his office said.
Bush almost immediately sat down with Maliki and his Cabinet in the Republican Palace, which houses part of the U.S. Embassy.
Maliki thanked Bush for the support and said he would form a coalition government. Officials close to Maliki said he wants U.S. forces to withdraw as soon as possible because he believes that Iraqis won't view his administration as self-sufficient until coalition forces leave.
"God willing, all of the suffering will be over, and all of the soldiers will be able to return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered," Maliki said to Bush.
Bush's trip had been planned for a month, but White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the president waited until the interior and defense posts were filled.
Bush's declining poll numbers have been buoyed by the recent developments in Iraq. In the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, 53 percent of 1,002 Americans surveyed June 9-10 described Zarqawi's death as a major achievement, and 47 percent said the war was going well, up from 38 percent in March. The president's approval rating was 38 percent, up from its low of 31 percent last month. (The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
Zarqawi's death has added to the pressure on the Iraqi government to improve security. With the man who personified insecurity dead, Iraqi leaders said ordinary Iraqis were less willing to give them time to reduce the violence.
As many as 60 people are kidnapped daily in Iraq, and many bodies are found in the streets. Al-Qaida in Iraq has said it would continue its car bombings and beheadings.
In Kirkuk, at least 14 people were killed in several car bombings on Tuesday.
Sunni leaders said they suspect that the Ministry of Health, which is run by a Shiite Muslim loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al Sadr, was responsible for the kidnapping of a Sunni senior Health Ministry official. The Sunni official was snatched inside the ministry two days ago. The ministry has denied any wrongdoing.
Hours before Bush arrived, Maliki's administration said it would deploy thousands of mostly Iraqi forces to carry out targeted raids in "hot areas" in the capital. Gen. Abdul Aziz of the Defense Ministry said that once those areas were under control, they would be handed over to the Iraqi police.
The forces also would improve the delivery of electricity and water, Aziz said.
"The new Iraqi government is serious about bringing back the trust between the Iraqi peoples and the Iraqi security forces," Aziz said.
Sunnis angrily charged that the largely Shiite Iraqi security forces would target Sunni households. They said that any security plan must include the dismantling of most Shiite militias, which control parts of the capital. Maliki, a former Shiite hardliner, has said that the militiamen must be incorporated into the government forces.
Bush's only other trip to Iraq was in November 2003, when he surprised U.S. troops with a Thanksgiving visit.
The president also met Tuesday with about 400 American civilians and military personnel living in the Green Zone, who gave him a rowdy welcome.
"Yours is hard work, but it's necessary work, and the government of the United States stands strongly beside you," Bush said.
(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Shatha al Awsy contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BUSH