BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – President Bush asked Iraq’s leader to join him in a Baghdad-Camp David satellite hookup to discuss the new government’s future. But he neglected to mention one thing: They’d be sitting right next to each other.

Surprising officials in both the Iraqi capital and at the presidential retreat in Maryland, Bush made a secret overnight flight to Baghdad to sit at the table with Iraqi leaders – and to watch members of his own Cabinet still in Camp David on a television screen.

While in Baghdad Tuesday, Bush promised Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the U.S. would stand by its commitment to help Iraq until the government can govern, sustain and defend itself. But he also said the country’s future is in Iraqi hands.

Reflecting later on his secret mission while returning to Washington aboard Air Force One, Bush told reporters Iraqi leaders were fearful that the United States might pull out too soon.

“There’s a worry almost to a person that we will leave before they are capable of defending themselves,” Bush said.

“And I assured them that they didn’t need to worry,” he said. “They are counting on us to continue to take the lead until such time as they are ready to take the lead.”

Bush said that top U.S. military and policy officials would sit down with Iraqi officials in the days ahead “and devise a way forward.” The president also said he would step up pressure on other world leaders to do more to help Iraq.

“I am going to call these leaders again and remind them that a stable and secure Iraq is part of a stable and secure Middle East,” Bush said.

In a mission designed to both showcase U.S. support for the new unity government and to ease war concerns at home, the president said the United States would stand by the new government as it works to achieve stability.

“When America gives its word, it keeps its word,” Bush said during his meeting with Iraqi officials.

At the same time, he emphasized that Iraq must control its own destiny.

“The decisions you and your cabinet make will be determinate as to whether or not a country succeeds that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,” he told al-Maliki.

Bush’s trip comes at a time when many Democrats – and some in his own party – are calling for a substantial number of American troops to be brought home by the end of this year.

War anxiety has been the driving force behind Bush’s plunge in the polls and a cause of Republican distress about holding control of Congress in the November mid-tem elections.

Bush spent just over 5½ hours in Baghdad. It was his second unannounced visit in the three-year war. He met with American troops at Thanksgiving 2003 in a visit confined to the airport and limited to several hours.

Bush slipped away from what had been billed as a two-day meeting at Camp David, Md., for a secret 11-hour overnight flight that brought him to his first direct talks with al-Maliki and members of the new government.

His visit was accompanied by incredibly tight security. On the way out, lights were turned off both on the helicopters that took Bush and his entourage to the airport and on Air Force One itself.

Only a handful of close aides knew about the trip in advance.

Al-Maliki himself did not know the president was in Baghdad until five minutes before they met in the blue-domed palace once used by Saddam Hussein but which now houses part of the U.S. Embassy in the heavily fortified Green Zone.

The Iraqi president had come to the embassy expecting to participate in a satellite video conference with Bush and aides from the presidential mountain retreat in Maryland.

Instead, Bush sat beside him. The video conference went on as scheduled with the U.S. officials still at Camp David.

“I’ve come to not only look you in the eye. I’ve also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word – that it’s in our interest that Iraq succeed,” Bush told al-Maliki.

Bush didn’t say whether he and the prime minister had discussed the timing or scope of a possible U.S. military withdrawal. There are now about 130,000 U.S. troops in the country and Bush faces increasing pressure at home to begin bringing many of them home.

Al-Maliki, speaking in Arabic, thanked Bush for U.S. protection, but expressed a general hope for the day when American troops would be gone.

“God willing, all of the suffering will be over, and all of the soldiers will be able to return to their countries with our gratitude for what they have offered,” al-Maliki said.

Before leaving Baghdad, Bush addressed a group of about 300 cheering U.S. troops assigned in supporting roles to the U.S. Embassy. He thanked them for their work and said a top U.S. priority was now to support the new government.

“Our job is to help them succeed and we will,” Bush said.

Several U.S. lawmakers briefed on Bush’s trip predicted that a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops might be accelerated following the presidential visit.

This time, Bush flew by helicopter from Baghdad International Airport to and from the Green Zone, where Iraq’s government meets and the U.S. and British embassies are based.

Bush also met with other Iraqi leaders before leaving the country.

Later, speaking with reporters for about 35 minutes on Air Force One, Bush said one of the Iraqi cabinet ministers asked him about the U.S. military’s conduct in terms of human rights of Iraqis.

“I assured her any complaints she had, the ambassador is more than willing to listen and there will be full investigations.” He said he reminded the Iraqi officials that mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by Americans at Abu Ghraib prison “is a sorry chapter in the Iraqi experience.”

The U.S. troops cheered loudly and raised digital cameras high as Bush visited them.

“Thought I’d stop by to say hello,” Bush said, to laughter. “I bring greetings from a grateful nation. And I thank you for your sacrifice.”

Bush’s visit came as his administration attempted to regain the initiative after months of increasingly deadly violence in Iraq and flagging support for the war among Americans.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld gave a classified briefing on Bush’s trip to selected senators.

Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, told reporters afterward that Bush’s trip “is likely to lead to phased redeployments this year and continuing in the next year.”

Rumsfeld said that many U.S. troops have already been brought home. He said officials would meet with Iraqi leaders “in the weeks ahead discussing at what pace we’re going to be able to draw down our forces and it will all be done in a very orderly way.”

Bush’s visit came six days after a U.S. air strike killed terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and five days after al-Maliki completed his cabinet by naming the ministers of Defense and Interior – events the president’s advisers hoped would lead to political progress.

But underscoring the dangers that remain, a series of explosions struck the northern city of Kirkuk on Tuesday, killing at least 16 people. And the new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq pledged to avenge predecessor al-Zarqawi’s death with horrific attacks, according to a statement posted on the Web.

Al-Maliki has won U.S. admiration by promising to crack down on militias and sectarian violence, promote national reconciliation, accelerate reconstruction efforts and restore essential services such as electricity.

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