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Cheney makes surprise visit to Iraq

Associated Press
Published December 19, 2005


AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq - Facing tough questions from battle-weary troops, Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday cited signs of progress in Iraq and signaled that force changes could come in 2006.

Cheney rode the wave of last week's parliamentary elections during a 10-hour surprise visit to Iraq that aimed to highlight progress at a time when Americans question the mission.

Cheney met with Iraq's leaders and military commanders in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone; saw an Iraqi troop training demonstration at Taji Air Base; and gave a speech to troops, followed by a smaller round-table discussion, at Al Asad Air Base.

Military commanders and top government officials offered glowing reports, but the rank-and-file troops Cheney met did not seem to share their enthusiasm.

"From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains," said Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, the first to question Cheney in the round-table with about 30 military members. "We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains. I was wondering what it looks like from the big side of the mountain - how Iraq's looking."

Cheney replied that remarkable progress has been made in the last year and a half.

"I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq," the vice president said. "We're getting the job done. It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."

Another Marine, Cpl. R.P. Zapella, asked, "Sir, what are the benefits of doing all this work to get Iraq on its feet?"

Cheney said the result could be a democratically elected Iraq that is unified, capable of defending itself and no longer a base for terrorists or a threat to its neighbors. "We believe all that's possible," he said.

Although he said that decisions about troop levels will be made by military commanders, Cheney said, "I think you will see changes in our deployment patterns probably within this next year."

About 160,000 troops are in Iraq. The administration has said troop levels are expected to return to a baseline of 138,000, but war critics have called for a significant drawdown. More than 2,100 troops have died in Iraq since the United States invaded in March 2003.

But during an earlier speech before hundreds of troops, Cheney stressed the Bush administration did not plan a rapid withdrawal.

"Some have suggested that the war is not winnable and a few seem almost eager to conclude the struggle is already over," he said. "But they are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit and that is not an option."

Cheney became the highest-ranking administration official to visit Iraq since President Bush's trip on Thanksgiving Day 2003. It was his first visit to Iraq since March 1991, when he was defense secretary for former President George Bush.

The tour came on the same day that the president was giving an address on Iraq. Cheney's aides said the timing was a coincidence, yet the two events combined in a public relations blitz aimed at capitalizing on the elections to rebuild support for the war.

The daylong tour of Iraq was so shrouded in secrecy that even Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani were kept in the dark. The prime minister said he was surprised when he showed up for what he thought was a meeting with the U.S. ambassador and saw Cheney.

Talabani, his finger still stained purple as proof that he had voted, was clearly delighted. He thanked Cheney profusely for coming and called him "one of the heroes of liberating Iraq."

Cheney had an hourlong briefing on the election from Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, top U.S. commander Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He emerged saying he was encouraged by preliminary results showing high turnout among Sunni Muslims, who make up the backbone of the insurgency.

"The participation levels all across the country were remarkable," Cheney said. "And that's exactly what needs to happen as you build a political structure in a self-governing Iraq that can unify the various segments of the population and ultimately take over responsibility for their own security."

The Iraq visit starts his five-day tour aimed at strengthening support for the war on terror. Stops include Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

[Last modified December 19, 2005, 01:39:06]


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