Bush appearance stuns troops gathered at airport for Thanksgiving

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov 27, 2003 (AP WorldStream via COMTEX) -- It was the biggest of holiday surprises.

The troops were getting ornery, 300 of them sitting for over an hour, waiting - for no good reason, it seemed - to get in the chow line at the Bob Hope Dining Hall at Baghdad International Airport and get their turkey dinners.

Finally, a visibly nervous U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III strode to the podium with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.

The two dispensed a few quick words. Bremer then turned to Sanchez and said he had a Thanksgiving message from U.S. President George W. Bush. Bremer said the most "senior" U.S. official among them should be the one to read it.

Turning toward the stage backdrop, Bremer asked: "Is there anyone back there who's more senior than us?"

Bremer's hands, cradling the president's speech, quavered.

At that moment, Bush strode forth from the wings in an Army track suit emblazoned with a 1st Armored Division patch. The bored crowd shot immediately from their seats and whooped. As he surveyed the crowd, a tear dripped to the president's cheek.

"I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," Bush said, to another whoop. "Thanks for inviting me to dinner."

After his speech, Bush waded into the crowd, shaking hands, dispensing hugs and posing for photos.

A towering Army master sergeant, Michael Johnson of Turlock, California, thrust his hand at the president.

"Johnson!" Bush declared as his hand was enveloped by the sergeant's. "I'm glad we're on the same side."

Afterward, Johnson, 40, cut a fairly blase pose.

"It was a pleasant surprise, actually," he said. "They had us waiting so long I started to get (mad). But it's not so often you get to meet a president."

Bush served mashed potatoes in the chow line for 10 minutes and then said he had to leave. He ducked into a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Bremer, Sanchez and four members of the Iraqi Governing Council. Then he was off.

Soldiers said they were impressed to see the commander in chief, the world's most powerful man, flying into Baghdad just days after a cargo plane was struck by a shoulder-fired missile.

"It was a shock," said Pvt. Jason Strickland of Virginia Beach, Virginia.

"It was a display of confidence in our ability to protect not just us, but him," said Pfc. Telo Monahan, 20, of Woodinville, Washington. "It was just three or four days after that DHL plane got hit."

Others said they'd been given a heartfelt boost after struggling with a difficult occupation.

"After 13 months in theater, my morale had kind of sputtered," said Capt. Mark St. Laurent, 36, of Leesburg, Virginia. "Now I'm good for another two months."

But other soldiers grew angry that their departure from the airport was delayed for an hour, while they waited for Air Force One to depart. Finding the door barred, about 50 troops got into a shouting match with the soldier blocking their exit. The streets of Baghdad were too dangerous to delay their departure any longer, they shouted.

"Do you have any idea how many IEDs are on this road?" one soldier shouted, referring to improvised explosive devices or roadside bombs. "I have to get back to my base. I don't want to lose a soldier because the president wants us to sit here."

Bremer said he'd known the visit was planned for quite a while. Few others shared the knowledge, not even some top officials on his staff.

"The surprise was terrific," Bremer said, beaming. "Operational security was great. It was quite an operation. We've been working on it for months."

By JIM KRANE Associated Press Writer