Bush shows guarded optimism on surprise Iraq trip

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — President George W. Bush said during a surprise trip to Baghdad on Tuesday he was encouraged by Iraq’s new government but warned of difficult times ahead, as Al Qaeda in Iraq vowed retaliation for the death of its leader.Bush, on his second trip since the 2003 US invasion, was boosted by last week’s killing of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mussab Zarqawi, but he was only cautiously optimistic.

“There are going to be tough days ahead, and more sacrifice for Americans, as well as Iraqis. But I come here — come away from here believing that the will is strong and the desire to meet the needs of the people is real and tangible,” Bush said.

Shortly after Bush started meetings with Shiite Islamist Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, Al Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq warned that Americans and their Iraqi allies would not be safe in their fortified compounds, according to a web statement.

“The day of vengeance is near and your strong towers in the Green Zone will not protect you,” said the statement posted on a Islamic militant website and signed by Abu Hamza Muhajir.

Bush said the US military would remain on the offensive.

“We will continue to hunt down people like Mr. Zarqawi, and bring them to justice,” he said to the applause of US troops.

Bombings that killed at 14 people in the city of Kirkuk were seen as a bid by Al Qaeda to show it was still going strong.

“Our swords are poised above your necks,” said a statement signed by Zarqawi’s successor, the little-known Abu Hamza Muhajir, on a website often used by Islamic militants.

Security concerns meant Bush’s journey was top secret.

Only Vice President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were aware he had slipped away from Camp David abruptly on Monday night. Bush spent several hours in Baghdad before returning to Washington.

Aides said he was in the cockpit of Air Force One when it landed in the Iraqi capital with a sharp bank and quick landing.

He then took an eight-minute helicopter ride in searing heat to the “Green Zone” for talks with the Iraqi Cabinet and US commander in Iraq General George Casey at the US embassy.

Heavy responsibilities

Bush’s meeting with the Iraqi cabinet was connected by video to Camp David, where Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice remained.

The president told Maliki and his ministers they carried heavy responsibilities but that America stood by them.

“I have come to not only look you in the eye, I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it will keep its word,” Bush said.

Maliki said postwar Iraq’s first full time government was determined to defeat the insurgents.

“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,” said the former exile.

The US death toll in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion is approaching 2,500, and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.

US public unease with the war is growing in a congressional election year and Bush faces calls to set a timetable for withdrawal of some 130,000 US troops.

On Monday he reiterated they would stay until conditions improved. In a letter to the United Nations Security Council circulated on Tuesday, Iraq said its forces were not yet ready.

Bush’s poll numbers have dipped to some of the lowest of his presidency, largely because of Iraq.

In one of the Kirkuk attacks, a car bomb exploded outside the house of a senior police officer, seriously wounding him and killing one of his bodyguards, police said.

As police and US forces gathered in the area, a roadside bomb exploded, killing 10 civilians, in a common tactic by Sunni Arab insurgents bent on toppling the Shiite-led government.

“The terrorists want to send a message that they are staying active despite the fact that Zarqawi was killed,” said Rizgar Ali, head of Kirkuk’s governing council.

A defence ministry official said more than 40,000 Iraqi and US forces would mount a crackdown in Baghdad on Wednesday, in what would be one of the biggest operations since the 2003 war.

“Armoured personnel carriers and tanks will be used. We will depend on intelligence to find suspects,” Major General Abdel Aziz Mohammed told Reuters.

Similar operations have failed to ease violence.

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