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Bush Stuns US Soldiers with Surprise Visit to Iraq - 2003-11-27

President Bush stunned U.S. soldiers in Iraq Thursday when he appeared for a Thanksgiving dinner for some of the troops at the Baghdad Airport. Mr. Bush's trip was a closely kept secret and not made public, until he was on his way back to the United States.

The president's Air Force One jet landed in darkness at the airport, amid extraordinary security and secrecy. Runway lights were turned off to minimize chances of making it a target.

A week ago Saturday, a cargo jet, taking off from the airport, was hit by a surface-to-air missile, forcing it to turn around and make an emergency landing. Civilian flights into the airport have been suspended ever since.

Because of security concerns, Mr. Bush's trip was a well-guarded secret. The White House says only a handful of senior aides knew about the visit.

At the airport, several hundred U.S. soldiers cheered wildly when President Bush stepped forward from behind a curtain at a dining hall serving Thanksgiving meals to the troops.

The president told the stunned soldiers that he came to Baghdad to deliver a message from a grateful nation.

"I bring a message on behalf of America. We thank you for your service. We're proud of you. And America stands solidly behind you," the president said.

Mr. Bush spent two-and-a-half hours on the ground, sharing his Thanksgiving meal with U.S. administrator Paul Bremer and the commander of coalition forces, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez. The president also chatted with several members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council who had been invited to the dinner.

President Bush is the first U.S. president ever to visit Iraq.

Security concerns about his visit were heightened by several more attacks Thursday against U.S. troops and its allies.

In the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, a U.S. military convoy came under small arms fire, setting three trucks ablaze, but causing no injuries. Overnight, insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Italian mission in central Baghdad, damaging the building. And in the northern city of Mosul, an Iraqi police officer was gunned down by unknown assailants.