When President Bush excused himself from a cabinet dinner at Camp David on Monday night, saying he was tired and "losing altitude," most of the people in the room had no idea that instead of heading off to bed, he'd actually soon be gaining altitude.
Not long after leaving dinner, the president boarded a top-secret flight to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
According to reports, Bush took a helicopter flight to Andrews Air Force base and shouted, "The POTUS is on board," to reporters traveling with him on the secret mission, using a White House code term for president of the United States.
Though the trip had been in the works for several weeks, according to CNN, only Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush knew about it, while the rest of the cabinet expected Bush to join them for a teleconference with Iraqi leaders at Camp David on Tuesday (June 13).
Instead, Bush met personally with the Iraqi prime minister after making a dramatic, spiraling descent into the locked-down Baghdad International Airport in a maneuver meant to avoid anti-aircraft fire. Even al-Maliki did not know Bush would be joining them for the meeting until he was told by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad on their way to the embassy.
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said the trip had been in the works for about a month and would have happened earlier if the final group of ministers had been in place before last Wednesday, according to a Reuters report. Bush said he wanted to meet al-Maliki face to face to "establish a closer relationship than you can just over a telephone."
Bolstered by the killing of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. bombing last week (see "Iraq's Most Wanted Terrorist, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Killed In Air Strike"), and the filling of the last remaining seats of the Iraqi cabinet, Bush promised that the U.S. will continue to support the new Iraqi government as they rebuild the country.
"The future of the country is in your hands," Bush told al-Maliki and his cabinet. "I've come not only to look you in the eye; I also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word."
Bush's last visit to Iraq — a Thanksgiving visit to troops in November 2003 — was also under a veil of secrecy and heavy security.
Though the country continues to be rocked daily by sectarian violence stemming from the long-simmering hostility between the Sunni, Shia and Kurds, Bush said he was encouraged by the make-up of the new cabinet.
"I'm impressed by the cabinet you've assembled," Bush told al-Maliki. "You've assembled people from all parts of your country, representing different religions and different histories, traditions. And yet the cabinet here represents the entire Iraqi people ... I'm impressed by the strength of your character and your desire to succeed."
Sitting next to Bush at a conference table, al-Maliki told the president, "We are determined to succeed and we have to defeat terrorists and defeat all the hardships ... God willing, all the suffering will be over, all the soldiers will return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered, the sacrifices."