BAGHDAD (AP) -- President George W. Bush on Sunday made a farewell visit to Iraq, a place that defines his presidency, just 37 days before he hands the war off to a successor who has pledged to end it.
Air Force One, Bush's distinctive powder blue-and-white jetliner, landed at Baghdad International Airport in the afternoon local time, after a secretive Saturday night departure from Washington and an 11-hour flight.
Aiming to celebrate a new security pact between Washington and Baghdad, the president planned meetings with top U.S. officials stationed in Iraq as well as with Iraqi leaders.
It was Bush's fourth visit to the war zone as president and his last before President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20. Bush's most recent Iraq stop was over 15 months ago, in September 2007.
Bush's trip was conducted under heavy security and a strict cloak of secrecy. People traveling with the president agreed to tell almost no one about the plans. The White House tried to avoid raising suspicion about the president's whereabouts by putting out false schedules detailing activities planned for Bush in Washington on Sunday. Though the security situation in Iraq has improved dramatically, a trip to that war zone is still considered dangerous.
Bush's visit came after Defense Secretary Robert Gates' unannounced stop in Iraq on Saturday, at a sprawling military base in the central part of the country. Gates will be the lone Republican holdover from the Bush Cabinet in the Obama administration.
Obama has promised he will bring all U.S. combat troops back home from Iraq a little over a year after taking office, as long as commanders agree a withdrawal would not endanger American personnel or Iraq's security. Obama has said that on his first day as president, he will summon the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House and give them a new mission: responsibly ending the war.
Obama has said the drawdown in Iraq would allow him to shift troops and bolster the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Commanders there want at least 20,000 more forces, but cannot get them unless some leave Iraq.
For Bush, the war is the issue around which both he and the country defined his two terms in office. He saw the invasion and continuing fight - even after weapons of mass destruction, the initial justification for invading Iraq, were not found - as a necessary action to protect Americans and fight terrorism. Though his decision won support at first, the public now has largely decided that the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq.
More than 4,209 members of the U.S. military have been killed in the war since it began five years and nine months ago. It has so far cost nearly $576 billion.
There are about 149,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. At the troop-level peak in October 2007, there were 170,000 U.S. military personnel in the country.
The new U.S.-Iraqi security pact goes into effect next month. It replaces a U.N. mandate that gives the U.S.-led coalition broad powers to conduct military operations and detain people without charge if they were believed to pose a security threat. The bilateral agreement changes some of those terms and calls for all American troops to be withdrawn by the end of 2011, in two stages.
The first stage begins next year, when U.S. troops pull back from Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by the end of June.
But the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, said Saturday that even after that summer deadline, some U.S. troops will remain in Iraqi cities. They will serve in local security stations as training and mentoring teams, and so will not violate the mandate for American combat forces to leave urban areas, he said.
Odierno said the continuing U.S. presence is important in light of the elections being held in Iraq throughout next year.
The agreement has received its final blessing within Iraqi's government, but Iraqi voters will have the final say in a referendum by the end of July. Provincial elections also are to be held after the first of the year
Bush credits last year's military buildup with the security gains in Iraq. Last month, attacks fell to the lowest monthly level since the war began in 2003.
But the successes are still viewed as fragile and reversible. Intermittent but high-profile bombings continue to shake confidence and the remaining high tensions between rival ethnic and religious groups raise questions about what will happen in Iraq after U.S. troops start withdrawing.
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