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How Bush pulled off his November surprise

By DAN OLMSTED

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Wednesday night, a vehicle with tinted windows moved along Interstate 35 in Texas, slowed by all the Thanksgiving traffic headed for Dallas.

The man and woman passengers in the van wore baseball caps low on their foreheads, tipping them even lower and slouching sideways in their seats from time to time.

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"We looked like a normal couple," the man -- President George W. Bush -- recounted less than 24 hours later with evident glee at having pulled off the biggest travel surprise since Richard Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger snuck in and out of Beijing, twice, in 1971. (The woman in the baseball cap was Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.)

Bush stunned about 600 soldiers in Baghdad when he walked out with no announcement to wish them a happy Thanksgiving and thank them for their sacrifices in the war in Iraq. He helped serve them Thanksgiving dinner.

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The soldiers were not the only ones in shock. Almost the entire White House press corps, and for that matter just about the entire White House and even the president's father -- were as much in the dark as Air Force One when it touched down in Baghdad.

Thursday afternoon, en route back from Baghdad, the president called in the few reporters who had accompanied him on the trip and offered a tick-tock report of how he had kept his secret, well, secret.

This was the scenario outlined by the president:

In October, his chief of staff, Andy Card, first raised the idea of a lightning trip to Baghdad. By the time Bush visited Asia later in the month, serious planning was under way -- as were serious concerns about security and secrecy.

"I was assured by our planners and, as importantly, our military people -- the pilot here of this airplane -- that the risk could be managed" as long as the secret was kept.

"I mean, I was the biggest skeptic of all," Bush said. "I had a lot of questions."

Bush discussed the trip with first lady Laura Bush, whom he said was enthusiastic, and with twin college-age daugthers Barbara and Jenna, who were also happy because they said "a lot of people their age" were serving in Iraq, according to the president.

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Among those who didn't know were Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were headed to the ranch for Thanksgiving dinner with their son. It is hard to imagine they would be considered security risks, but officials said they didn't want to cause any change of plans or routine that might inadvertently show the president's hand to outsiders.

The stealth trip began when Bush and Rice left the president's ranch near Crawford en route to Air Force One; at the airport gate, Bush said, he slouched and pulled his hat down to avoid being recognized. Observers were told Air Force One was being flown away for maintenance.

After landing at Andrews Air Force base outside Washington, Bush switched to a second presidential 747 (also called Air Force One as soon as the president stepped in it). During the transfer, Bush said, he worried that any cellphone use could be a tipoff.

From there it was 11 hours to Baghdad, but Bush said he was ready to turn back at the first hint that secrecy had been compromised, given the peril that shoulder-fired missiles could pose at the Baghdad airport if enemies were forewarned.

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"I was fully prepared to turn this baby around," Bush said. Three hours out from Baghdad, he checked with staffers to make sure security hadn't been breached, then went to the cockpit to watch as the plane landed.

The aircraft turned off its outside lights, and all the shades were pulled. Still, the commotion of a 747 landing at Baghdad International -- formerly Saddam International -- must have been considerable.

Bush's ground time in Iraq was just two-and-a-half hours, but the reception from the troops clearly buoyed him as much as it did them.

"It was an emotional moment to walk into that room, the energy level was beyond belief," the president said.

The trip back to Washington was expected to take an even longer 13 hours, putting the president on home soil at about 2 a.m.

From there he was expected to return to his Crawford ranch for a belated family Thanksgiving. On the return, traffic is unlikely to be a problem.

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