The Day the President Dropped by Baghdad

President Bush's surprise visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad turned to a specific discussion about the situation in Iraq. The president says he emerged with some new information, and some fresh concerns.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Today, in Baghdad, the new government has put thousands of soldiers on the streets. It's an effort to reclaim the lawless neighborhoods of the capital city outside the gates of the Green Zone where the president visited.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NPR White House Correspondent David Greene traveled with the president on this unannounced trip to Baghdad, and joins us now. David, good morning.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you sound awfully awake for having just traveled thousands and thousands of miles.

GREENE: It was a long trip, but the adrenaline's still going.

INSKEEP: And what was the point of the trip, from the president's point-of-view?

GREENE: I think he wanted to try and really give a boost to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. White House officials are saying in retrospect that they didn't have a lot of confidence in previous Iraqi leaders, like former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. In Maliki, they see someone who they think can put a solid government together, but they view this as a critical window for Maliki to prove himself; so the trip was both for Mr. Bush to, as he put it, look Maliki in the eyes and offer U.S. support, but to put some pressure on. Mr. Bush said it's time for Maliki to do some hard things, to set an agenda, and to start accomplishing something.

INSKEEP: Were there substantive decisions made during that few hours on the ground?

GREENE: No real decisions that we know of that were big. But the President really got down to a level, especially in the cabinet meeting, where he was hearing specifics - specific plans from the oil ministers, specific plans from the minister responsible for electricity - and he came away telling reporters that he had a better picture of all parts of Iraq and exactly what's going on, and not an entirely good one.

The president said, for example, that he has some more serious concerns now about the situation in Baghdad and the ability of gangs to roam freely through the streets of the capital. So talking about what potential problems are there, talking about Maliki's plans for how to solve them, and I think the president delivering some messages about how he thinks the U.S. government can help; and also how the U.S. feels that Maliki should do some things differently if it's going to get the job done.

INSKEEP: Security must have been extreme on this trip.

GREENE: It really was, Steve, from beginning to end. Our departure from Baghdad was pretty amazing. There was a motorcade waiting outside the U.S. embassy, where the president spent his day. All the lights of all the vehicles were out to keep things dark and not draw attention. We were all told - the reporters -to keep our heads down. We had our body armor on to really run across the helipad to the helicopters and took a dark flight across Baghdad back to the airport. And once we boarded Air Force One, very strict orders to keep the blinds down, to keep the lights off so as not to be noticed.

Cell phones off so we couldn't be tracked at all. And then Air Force One took off on a dark runway and really shot up into the air much faster than usual and there was really a sense of relief once we hit higher altitudes, because, by that point, as opposed to when the president arrived, much of Iraq knew that he was in the country.

INSKEEP: Was it significant that even the Iraqi's, apparently, were not told for security reasons that the president was coming until he was almost there?

GREENE: It certainly added an entertaining element to see Maliki come in and greet the president knowing that he had just found out, moments ago, that he was actually going to be meeting Mr. Bush in person. He found out from U.S. Ambassador Zal Khalilzad.

You know, we have to remember this is a sovereign government, so the president coming into the Green Zone and ushering the prime minister to a meeting without the prime minister knowing exactly who he was going to be meeting with - I'd really love to see them pull that off in Washington if a foreign leader was coming to see the president. But they insisted that all the secrecy, telling reporters that they couldn't tell anyone where they were going and really keeping it a tight circle was absolutely necessary to keep the president safe.

INSKEEP: David, as you listen to the things the president has said and done over the last few days, do you see a strategy emerging to change the way that Americans view the U.S. involvement in Iraq?

GREENE: Well, the president brought us back into his cabin on the plane on the way back from Baghdad, and one thing he said was, the definition of success is not to end all violence, that you can be successful in Iraq if ordered is restored and if people are confident going about their daily lives. And so, it's a bit of a lower bar.

And I think that you might be seeing an effort to shift the focus away from the daily headlines of violence - if they can do that - and play up some positives: a terrorist leader like Zarqawi being killed, a new government being formed. The president has been very careful not to oversell, but perhaps we're seeing the early stages of making a case later that this war has been a success, even if the country is still volatile.

But I think the White House knows that they have a long way to go, even before making that argument.

INSKEEP: NPR White House Correspondent David Greene, just back from a trip to Baghdad with President Bush. David, get some sleep.

GREENE: Thanks, Steve.

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