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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 November, 2003, 20:56 GMT
Analysis: Into Iraq by stealth

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

George W Bush with troops in Iraq
Bush rallied the troops at their thanksgiving dinner
President Bush's visit to Iraq was a morale-booster for troops far from home on the most important family day of the year for Americans.

But the need for secrecy also emphasised the difficulties of the US-led occupation of Iraq.

It was notable, too, that Mr Bush chose the "war on terror" as a major theme of his visit, linking Iraq to that worldwide war.

He is already making it the highlight of his gathering campaign to win next November's presidential election.

His remarks to the troops at their lunch of turkey in Baghdad recalled his statement that Iraq was the new "front line".

"You are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful," he said.

"You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq so we don't have to face them in our own country."

He also had a strong message to Iraqis, that the United States would stay "until the job is done."

This will challenge the Iraqi resistance to throw those words back at him, but will encourage Iraqis working towards the elections and a constitutional government. The Americans and British say that the latter far outnumber the former.

Dangers

The dangers George Bush faced on this visit were such that he had to slip away from his ranch in Texas, where his parents had already joined him. The news media had even been given the menu for the family lunch.

His plane was blacked out on the approach to Baghdad and Air Force One would have turned back if news had leaked out in advance.

Mr Bush will probably not want an analogy drawn with President Nixon's visit to Vietnam in July 1969
Only last Saturday a freight plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile, managing to land with one wing on fire.

Mr Bush might have got the idea of a Thanksgiving visit from his father, who paid a similar visit to US troops, in Saudi Arabia in 1990, just before the first Gulf War.

But he would have wished that this first visit by a US president to Iraq had been done with more style than stealth.

On 1 May he announced from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended".

Major operations in the sense of lines of tanks charging through the desert have ended.

Casualties have not.

Morale boost

Since 1 May, 184 US soldiers have been killed by hostile action, compared to 114 before.

November has been the worst month, with 65 Americans dead compared to 33 in October.

US soldier guards the centre of Tikrit
The US is to send thousands more marines to Iraq
The visit also came at a time when US policy in Iraq has just been changed, and it can be seen as a personal endorsement of that switch.

American officials in Iraq, as well as American troops, need their morale strengthened.

Instead of a lengthy process of drawing up a constitution, holding elections and forming a government, the plan now is to have an interim government take charge by July next year.

The occupation will formally end, but US, British and other coalition troops are expected to stay on at the request of the new government.

There is even talk within Nato of Nato one day taking over the operation (as is happening in Afghanistan) - though there is as yet no consensus for this to happen.

Mr Bush will probably not want an analogy drawn with President Richard Nixon's visit to Vietnam in July 1969.

Mr Nixon was already formulating a "Vietnamisation" policy, under which South Vietnam troops would increasingly take over the fighting with modern weapons.

His policy led to US withdrawal and a South Vietnamese defeat.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The BBC's Peter Greste
"It was a very swift, clandestine visit"



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