Bush, Rice, Gates Make Surprise Visit to Iraq

President Bush was in Anbar province, which is one of the safest parts of Iraq.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:37 AM

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq, Sept. 3, 2007 — -- In a surprise trip shrouded in secrecy, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates flew roughly 11 hours to a remote air base in western Iraq for a meeting with senior U.S. military leaders and top Iraqi political leadership.

After hearing from top U.S. and Iraqi leaders, President Bush said that some U.S. troops could be sent home if security conditions across Iraq continue to improve as they have in Anbar province. Bush also said that the U.S. will not abandon the Iraqi people.

President Bush also spoke to a crowd of cheering troops during his visit. He thanked U.S. troops for their bravery and said that successes in Anbar province were a result of their hard work.

Bush added that reduction in U.S. troop numbers in Iraq would be based on calm assessment and not the "nervous reaction" of politicians in Washington.

Bush met with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker at the Al Asad Air Base.

Addressing future U.S. involvement in Iraq, Petraeus said that "there are limits to what our military can provide" and that his decisions will be guided by the strain "we have put on our military services."

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 were joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Iraq.

In a short and exclusive interview with ABC News in Iraq, Gates, who usually avoids happy talk, said, "I am more optimistic now than at any time since I took the job."

He cited improvements in security, and, more importantly, progress in "bottom-up" reconciliation at the local level as reasons for his optimism.

Gates said he has made up his mind about his recommendation to Bush on troop levels, but would not say what he has decided.

During a short news briefing after Bush's speech, national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the president would likely address the American people about the way forward in Iraq shortly after Petraeus and Crocker testify before Congress. As for this surprise trip, Hadley said they began planning for it "about five or six weeks ago."

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.

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."

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.

White House officials won't say how he got out of the White House, but they say it worked so well the president might just want to try it again.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl and Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.