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Last Updated: Friday, 28 November, 2003, 11:56 GMT
How Bush was whisked to Iraq
George W Bush with troops in Iraq
Troops were genuinely surprised and delighted to see Bush
It looked like being another normal family Thanksgiving Day at US President George W Bush's ranch in Texas.

George Bush senior and his wife Barbara arrived there unaware that their son was soon to make a momentous visit to Iraq.

Even the White House media pool were unprepared - having already been given a menu of what the first family would be having for dinner at home in Texas.

Yet, despite the extreme secrecy, it was a trip that had been weeks in the planning.

The president himself admitted being "the biggest sceptic of all", after his chief of staff Andy Card first raised the idea of the high-risk journey in mid-October.

Bush driven to ex-military base in Waco in unmarked vehicle on Wednesday evening
boards Air Force One
lands briefly outside Washington to change planes
departs for Baghdad
press ordered to hand over electronic devices
British Airways pilot almost derails secret plan
final check with secret service three hours before landing
lands in Baghdad Thursday evening
driven in motorcade to dinner with troops
spends two hours celebrating Thanksgiving Day
flies back to US
news "breaks" only after plane leaves Baghdad

Mr Bush wanted to make certain that it could be done safely, and was also worried in case his Baghdad blitz would "jeopardise somebody else's life".

"I had a lot of questions," the president recounted later.

The president said he and Mr Card used code words when planning the trip, about which only a handful of aides knew in advance.

Although First Lady Laura Bush was apparently aware of the preparations, she and her daughters were only told of the final decision hours before the president left.

"It looks like we're on," the president told her on Wednesday morning.

A photographer for AFP news agency described how he was given a moment's notice to prepare to leave.

"I had been taking a nap and had just a few minutes to grab what I need and be outside the back of my hotel and not to make any calls," Tim Sloan said.

'Normal couple'

Mr Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were driven in an unmarked car with tinted windows from the president's ranch on Wednesday night, past secret service agents who did not know he was going.

George W Bush serves turkey to US troops in Baghdad
Mr Bush helped serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal

Both wore baseball caps, pulled low over their eyes.

As he made the 45-minute ride from the ranch to the airport, Mr Bush apparently joked about encountering traffic for the first time - normally his motorcade speeds through red lights.

Before arriving at the airfield at a former military base in Waco, Texas, he slouched down to avoid being recognised by guards.

"We looked liked a normal couple," the president said later.

He boarded Air Force One at 2025 local time (0125 GMT) with a small number of press.

The departure of the presidential plane was explained by the ruse that it needed maintenance at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

The group landed briefly at Andrews at around midnight to change planes and pick up some aides and press. The switch took place in a huge hangar, away from prying eyes.

'No calls, got it?'

Before the take-off, Mr Bush ordered the pool of five reporters, photographers, a television producer and a two-person camera crew not to break telephone silence.

"No calls, got it?" he said, emphasising the point by slashing his hand in front of his throat.

While on the flight, the were asked to hand over their mobile phones, pagers, batteries and other electronic devices.

They were told that if news of the visit leaked out then the plane would turn around and head home.

"I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home," Mr Bush said.

'Ghost' plane

The closest that came to happening was when a pilot flying a passing British Airways passenger jet radioed the president's aircraft to ask if it was Air Force One he had just seen.

Once assured by Air Force One pilot Colonel Mark Tillman that it was not, the president's extraordinary journey to Baghdad continued.

Three hours before the scheduled landing in Baghdad, Mr Bush again checked with the secret service to see if the secret was intact.

White House communications director Dan Bartlett warned journalists the plane would be landing - in the dark - with its lights dimmed.

"It is absolutely critical, when we land, that you do not open your window [blinds]," he told the press pool.

"Particularly as we land and when we're on the ground, we want no light emanating from the plane. We will not be pulling up to a terminal. We will be stopping at the end of the runway."

On the approach to Baghdad, the president went into the cockpit and watched Colonel Tillman bring the plane down.

Mr Bush said that if security had been breached the plane would have been most vulnerable at this moment, despite being equipped with hi-tech devices to ward off missiles.


Mr Bartlett confirmed that staff on the ground at Baghdad International Airport had no idea that Air Force One was about to arrive.

The president landed at 1732 local time (1432 GMT) and was put in a white jeep - in a motorcade of 13 vehicles, including a military ambulance - for the five-minute journey to the back of the Bob Hope Dining Facility.

More than 600 troops thought the dinner was with US administrator Paul Bremer and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, head of the coalition forces in Iraq.

Correspondents say the soldiers were genuinely surprised and delighted when their commander-in-chief walked in, and welcomed him with deafening cheers and applause.

News only broke of the visit once the president was safely on his way back on Air Force One.

The BBC's David Bamford in Washington said news of the visit was perfectly timed for maximum impact in the US.

The story broke in the late morning on the east coast, just as Americans were preparing their Thanksgiving dinners.

The BBC's Peter Greste
"It was a very swift, clandestine visit"

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