Bush, Rice, Gates visit Iraq and meet with Iraqi leaders in Anbar

Bush, Rice, Gates Make Surprise Visit to Iraq

Three Will Conduct Meetings With U.S. Military Leaders and Iraqi Political Leadership

President Bush greets troops with Regimental Combat Team 2/Marine Wing Support Squadron Combat Patrol at Al-Asad Air Base.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP-Getty Images

President Bush greets troops with Regimental Combat Team 2/Marine Wing Support Squadron Combat Patrol at Al-Asad Air Base.

President Bush

President Bush, center, arrives at Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, as Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, left and CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon, right, look on, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007. The president made an unannounced visit to Iraq to meet with Petraeus, Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Iraqi leaders, and U.S. troops. (Charles Dharapak/AP Photo)

National security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters the Al Asad Air Base in the Anbar province was chosen because of its remarkable turnaround in security. A year ago violence was high and a military intelligence officer said it was lost to al Qaeda.

Bush and Gates join Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who is also in Iraq.

A Decisional Meeting

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell described this extraordinary meeting as a decisional meeting.

“This is the last opportunity the president will have to meet with his war council and the Iraqi leadership before making his decision on the way forward in Iraq,” Morrell said. “This is clearly a meeting geared toward making a decision.”

Senior officials traveling with Gates portrayed the visit as a chance to hear directly from the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker one last time before making decisions about the future course for the U.S. military in Iraq.

“Nothing beats the opportunity to look David Petraeus in the eye and Ambassador Crocker and say, ‘What’s the situation? What do you think?'” a senior defense official told reporters en route to Iraq.

The top Iraqi political leaders, representing Iraq’s primary sectarian groups, traveled to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq’s Anbar province for the meeting: Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh.

A Shia Among Sunnis

For Maliki, a Shia, it is only his third trip as prime minister to the Sunni-dominated Anbar province.

Bush and Gates are also meeting with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar for the first time. The tribal sheikhs began cooperating with the U.S. military earlier this year in the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq, causing a dramatic reduction in violence.

By meeting directly with Sunni tribal leaders, Bush gets a chance to tout success in the Anbar province, but he is also sending a message to Maliki. The United States plans to accelerate the effort to work directly with local leaders here and elsewhere in Iraq, even if that means bypassing the central government in Iraq. It’s what a senior administration official called the “bottom-up approach.”

Security in Secrecy

The surprise visit was conducted under such secrecy that reporters traveling with Gates were only given 24 hours notice to pack their bags and asked to tell only two people about the trip: one editor and one family member.

Reporters were not allowed to discuss the trip with anyone else until more than an hour after Gates had arrived. Defense officials said the reason for the secrecy was security.

Bush will spend a few hours on the ground in Iraq, but will never leave the heavily protected U.S. air base.

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