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Bush Detours To Iraq Enroute To Asia-Pacific Summit


President Bush's surprise stop in Iraq marks the third time the president has managed to shroud his travel plans to a war zone in secrecy. As White House Correspondent Paula Wolfson reports, the president's plans were known to only a few.

White House reporters had an inkling that something was about to happen as they boarded the press plane at a Washington area Air Force base for the long journey to the Asia Pacific Summit in Australia. They were leaving with only a sketchy schedule for the president - something that almost never happens on a foreign trip. A few hours later, they learned why.

As the press plane headed west across the United States and over the Pacific to Hawaii, President Bush - who had slipped out a side door of the White House earlier in the day - was heading east over the Atlantic.

The handful of reporters on Air Force One were sworn to secrecy, their cell phones and laptops taken shortly after they left Washington. They had no way to get out the news until they landed in Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was on the plane with the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was waiting when they touched down in al-Anbar province at a dusty, isolated air base that is home to 10,000 U.S. troops.

The White House has been showcasing Anbar as one of the success stories of the Iraq conflict - a part of the country that is slowly recovering from extreme violence with the help of Sunnis that are now working with the U.S. military.

"Today, Anbar is a really different place," said President Bush. "The level of violence is down. Local governments are - it is on a path to a better life."

It was in Anbar that the president chose to meet with his top officials in Iraq - military commander General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He also conferred with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and members of his government.

"General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker tell me if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces," he said.

Petraeus and Crocker will testify before the U.S. Congress this week on the administration's military strategy and the impact an extra 30,000 American troops have had on the security situation. Their testimony is a prelude to a White House report on Iraq due on Capitol Hill on September 15.

During his appearance the president urged continued patience and support for his policies.

"When we begin to draw down troops in Iraq it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure," said Mr. Bush.

White House officials say planning for the trip began five or six weeks ago. They say it was timed to coincide with the imminent release of the report to Congress, but took issue with the notion some might see the stop in Iraq as a publicity stunt.

They say the president wanted to meet face-to-face not only with his commanders and the ambassador, but also members of the Maliki government so he could personally urge them to move toward political reconciliation.

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