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Bush makes surprise visit to Iraq, meets PM

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, June 13 (Reuters) President George W Bush made his second visit to Baghdad since the 2003 invasion today, days after US forces killed al Qaeda's chief in Iraq.

''When America gives its word, it keeps its word,'' Bush told new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The White House said Bush would be on the ground for more than five hours and would also meet US troops during a surprise trip that began in high secrecy.

His first visit since Thanksgiving in November 2003 came six days after a US air strike killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.

A wave of bombings hit the oil city of Kirkuk today, killing 14 people, in what was seen as a bid by al Qaeda to show the death of its leader would not stop its campaign of violence.

Maliki was told about the trip only five minutes before meeting Bush and many of Bush's own aides were kept in the dark.

Only Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were aware Bush had slipped away from Camp David abruptly yesterday night.

Bush was flown to Baghdad International Airport, then boarded a helicopter for an 8-minute ride in searing heat to the fortified ''Green Zone'' for talks with the Iraqi cabinet and US commander in Iraq General George Casey at the US embassy.

''The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself,'' Bush told Maliki.

The Iraqi prime minister said: ''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.'' 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.

Yesterday he reiterated they would stay until conditions improved to the point where they could be withdrawn.

Bush's poll numbers have dipped to some of the lowest of his presidency, largely because of Iraq. The killing of Zarqawi, and news today that White House aide Karl Rove will not be charged in a CIA leak case, have offered some comfort.

BOMBINGS 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 seeking to topple the Shi'ite-led government backed by the United States.

''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.

Al Qaeda in Iraq yesterday named a successor to Zarqawi and vowed the new leader would press on with a campaign of suicide bombings and beheadings. Almost nothing is known about Zarqawi's successor, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Bush voed on Monday he would be ''on our list'' of targets.

A senior Iraqi defence ministry official told Reuters more than 40,000 Iraqi and US forces backed by tanks would launch a crackdown in Baghdad tomorrow, in what would be one of the biggest such 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.

US and Iraqi forces have launched several such operations aimed at rooting out insurgents and militants but have failed to ease violence.

Iraq's insurgency is dominated by Saddam Hussein loyalists.

In Saddam's trial at a courtroom in the Green Zone today, the chief judge said it would be the last day to hear defence witnesses, setting the stage for final arguments before a verdict, although appeals may cause long delays.

Saddam and seven co-accused are on trial for crimes against humanity in connection with the killings of 148 Shi'ites after an attempt on his life in the town of Dujail in 1982.

REUTERS SY BD2151

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