/ 13 June 2006

Bush in Baghdad for morale-boosting talks

United States President George Bush arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday on a surprise five-hour visit in a bid to boost the new government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in its fight against the raging insurgency.

A White House spokesperson confirmed that Bush was in Baghdad. ”I can confirm President Bush is in Iraq,” Ken Lisaius told Agence France-Presse.

Bush met with al-Maliki, as well as his new Cabinet, specifically the key ministers of interior, defence and oil, at the US embassy in Baghdad, an AFP photographer reported.

He was accompanied by senior aides National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, White House counsellor Dan Bartlett, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagan and White House spokesperson Tony Snow, according to a pool reporter travelling with him.

It was Bush’s first visit since he flew in to eat an emotional Thanksgiving dinner on November 27 2003 with 600 troops on a visit also organised under the greatest secrecy.

Bush had been expected to hold one hour of video-conference talks with al-Maliki on the second day of a major assessment of the situation in Iraq that began on Monday in the US at his Camp David retreat.

President Bush was also scheduled to meet with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the speaker of Iraq’s Parliament and a number of Iraqis from the country’s business, cultural and educational circles.

Bartlett said neither al-Maliki nor any members of his government were told that Bush was planning to visit Baghdad in person and only learned of his visit after the president’s helicopter had landed in the Green Zone.

”The president views it [as] you’re entering into a situation with a very determined enemy who wants to stop the very progress that this president and this new government are working so hard to achieve,” Bartlett said.

”Obviously, when you’re entering into a situation where the enemy is so active we have to be extra cautious, but I think the American people and the entire international community are reassured by the fact that the president is making such a personal effort to ensure the success of the new government,” he added.

Bush’s visit comes almost a week after al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, an event hailed by the US as a major breakthrough in the war against the insurgency.

It also coincided with a day when at least 32 people were killed in Iraq, including 18 in five car bomb attacks in the oil city of Kirkuk.

”The best way to win this war against an insurgency is to stand up a unity government, which is capable of defending itself but also providing tangible benefits to the people,” Bush said at Camp David on Monday.

Bush had also urged Iraq’s neighbours and the international community to do more to help al-Maliki’s new government and vowed to target the successor to al-Zarqawi after his death last week.

”The successor to al-Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice,” said Bush, who called the Jordan-born extremist’s death ”a major blow” to Osama bin Laden’s group, but warned it is ”not going to end the war”.

New curfew

Meanwhile, the Iraqi defence ministry announced on Tuesday an extension of the night-time curfew in Baghdad as part of a new security plan that will soon be launched to contain the persistent violence.

The plan, ”Operation Forward Together”, will involve putting more than 40 000 US and Iraqi troops on the ground to ensure stability in the violence-torn capital.

”The curfew will run from 8.30pm to 6am [local time],” said General Abdel Aziz Mohammed. The curfew previously began at 11pm.

In addition, vehicle traffic will be banned from the capital’s streets from 11am to 3pm [local time] on Fridays, coinciding with prayer time.

”Substantial Iraqi and multinational forces will be deployed mainly in the troubled sectors of Baghdad,” said the general, without giving further details.

”Security forces will also launch operations in the areas around Baghdad to strike terrorist hideouts,” he said.

The general declined to specify exactly when the plan would be launched, but earlier security officials indicated it would be put in place on Wednesday. — Sapa-AFP