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Bush hails Afghan 'hopeful gains'

Mr Bush addressed hundreds of US troops at Bagram air base

US President George W Bush is in Afghanistan for his last visit before stepping down in January.

Mr Bush addressed US troops at Bagram air base before holding talks in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"We are making hopeful gains," Mr Bush said, and Afghanistan was "dramatically different" from 2001.

Mr Bush flew to Afghanistan from Iraq, where a news conference was disrupted when an Iraqi TV journalist threw his shoes and shouted insults at him.

The president ducked and just missed the shoes, which hit the wall behind. The journalist was wrestled to the floor by security guards.

During the trip, Mr Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki signed a new security agreement between their countries, which paves the way for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by 2011.

'Hopeful gains'

President Bush was met at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, early on Sunday by Gen David McKiernan, the US commander of Nato-led troops in Afghanistan.

He was then led into a giant white tent, where hundreds of US troops greeted him with cheers as he thanked them for serving.

This is going to be a long struggle - ideological struggles take time
US President George W Bush

"I am confident we will succeed in Afghanistan because our cause is just," he said in a speech.

"Afghanistan is a dramatically different country than it was eight years ago," he added.

Mr Bush then took a helicopter ride to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he reviewed an Afghan army honour guard before holding talks with Mr Karzai.

"I and the Afghan people are very proud and honoured to the profoundest depth of our hearts to have President Bush with us here today," the Afghan leader told him on arrival.

After their meeting, Mr Bush told a news conference that although much had changed in Afghanistan, there was "going to be a long struggle" before the Taleban were defeated.

US soldiers in Khost province, Afghanistan (15 November 2008)
Mr Bush said he recognised that more troops were needed in Afghanistan

"I told the president you can count on the United States. Just like you've been able to count on this administration, you will be able to count on the next administration as well," he said.

"It's in our interest that Afghanistan's democracy flourishes."

He said he wanted President-elect Barack Obama to succeed and that he expected to "see more US troops here as quickly as possible in parts of the country that are being challenged by the Taleban".

Mr Karzai said his government was grateful for the assistance it had received, and that one of the key tasks for the US-led coalition was "enabling Afghanistan to eventually stand on its own feet".

"The Afghan people don't want to be a burden on the international community for ever," he added.

Earlier, on the flight from Baghdad, Mr Bush said the strategy for Afghanistan, like that for Iraq, was to let the new democracy develop its institutions so that it could survive on its own.

'Goodbye kiss'

While visiting Baghdad on Saturday, Mr Bush said the war in Iraq was not yet over and that much work still needed to be done there.

If you want the facts, it's a size 10 shoe that he threw
US President George W Bush

"The work hasn't been easy but it's been necessary for American security, Iraqi hope and world peace," he said during talks with President Jalal Talabani.

The Iraqi leader called Mr Bush "a great friend for the Iraqi people, who helped us liberate our country".

Later, Mr Bush signed a security pact with Prime Minister Maliki which calls for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011. They are first to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June next year.

But in the middle of a news conference with Mr Maliki in the Green Zone, Iraqi television journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi stood up and shouted "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," before hurling a shoe at Mr Bush which narrowly missed him.

With his second shoe, which the president also dodged, Mr Zaidi said: "This is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq."

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President Bush ducks as the shoes are thrown

Mr Zaidi, a correspondent for Cairo-based al-Baghdadiya TV, was then wrestled to the ground by security personnel and hauled away.

"If you want the facts, it's a size 10 shoe that he threw," Mr Bush joked afterwards.

Correspondents say showing the soles of shoes is a sign of contempt in Arab culture. Iraqis threw shoes and used them to beat Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad after he was overthrown in 2003.

Mr Bush's unannounced visit to Baghdad came a day after Defence Secretary Robert Gates told US troops that the Iraq mission was in its "endgame".

The BBC's Sarah Morris in Washington says the presidential trip to Iraq and Afghanistan was planned with meticulous secrecy.

The accompanying journalists were asked to tell no-one other than a superior and their spouse. The White House even published a false schedule of events.

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