Bush's Surprise Iraq Visit

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Samantha Appleton/Auroroa for Time

Coming to Dinner: Bush startled troops at Baghdad Airport

 It was around 5:30 PM at Baghdad Airport. Defying the insurgents who launch regular missile attacks on aircraft flying in and out of Baghdad, Air Force One flew in under total cover of darkness, the shades drawn inside and with no headlights on, landing in one of the most dangerous cities on Earth. The plane roared over our heads as we stood waiting for an address in a huge hangar filled with 550 soldiers — a speech we had been told was to be by the U.S. administrator to Iraq, Paul Bremer. Bush's trip had been so tightly guarded a secret that White House officials told the tiny traveling press corps that if word leaked out that they were on their way to Baghdad, they would turn the plane around.

The day before, TIME photographer Chris Usher was in Waco with members of the White House staff. "They said: 'the president is going to Baghdad in two hours,'" Usher said. "We all thought it was a joke." They were forbidden to tell anyone. "Not even my wife knows where I am," said Fox News soundman John Wallace, who had been bundled into a car by White House officials and driven with about 10 other journalists to the airfield. "Everyone thinks we're with Bush in Waco."

Bush's arrival was a stunning surprise to all but a small handful of top officials gathered in the huge hangar last night. The first whiff of something afoot rippled through the six invited journalists, as they watched a few colleagues — fresh from Waco — walk into the hangar through a back door. "It's Cheney," whispered one journalist, who recognized a White House photographer among them. "Not possible," was the quick answer from another.

Moments later, Bremer took the podium, telling the crowd he had a Thanksgiving letter from Bush to read to the troops. Turning to General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the 131,000 US ground forces in Iraq, Bremer asked: "General, is there anyone more senior than us here to read the letter?" and waved his arm towards the netting backdrop. It was Bush's cue.

The moment was a stunning public-relations coup for an administration already deep in campaign mode. The roars of soldiers were near deafening, forcing Bush to pause to allow the stunned crowd to settle down. When he did, a few tears briefly welled as he thanked the troops for their bravery. The loudest cheers came with Bush's promise to hang in here, despite the soaring attacks against troops. "We didn't charge hundreds of miles into he heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost in casualties… only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," he said, as soldiers leaped to their feet, roaring their approval.

To Iraqis, Bush's message was equally clear: join Washington's program, or risk being cut out of the process altogether. "You have the opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country based on dignity and freedom," Bush said. "The regime of Saddam Hussein has gone forever." Hammering home what has become his mantra in recent weeks, he said: "We will stay until the job is done."

What that job means is yet unclear. Will the troops remain until Saddam is captured or killed? And will they leave before weapons of mass destruction are found, if ever? At least for the 2 ˝ golden hours that Bush was on Iraqi soil last night, those questions went unanswered in the euphoria. Instead, Bush worked the crowd, dishing up mashed potatoes and turkey to the troops and posing for photos with Iraqi politicians, and seeming to relish each moment. Leaning close to a few soldiers, he gripped one hand and said quietly: "The least I can do is come and say thanks."

In daylight, the violence and political tensions will no doubt reemerge. Still, as the President swept out of the room and back to Air Force One, the 1st Armored Division's Sergeant First Class Charles House, 32, of Riverside, Calif., said: "This feels real good." For these few hours, it did.