Iraqi PM given five minutes' notice of Bush's flying visit

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President George Bush made a top-secret trip to Baghdad yesterday in a dramatic gesture of support for the new Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki.

The five-hour visit took place amid intense security. Only a handful of aides were in the know as Mr Bush slipped away from a dinner at Camp David, where he had been discussing Iraq with members of his cabinet, saying: "I'm losing altitude; I'm going to read."

Instead, he boarded a helicopter to Andrews Air Force base and took off for Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister was apparently only given five minutes' notice of Mr Bush's arrival. The two leaders met in the former palace of Saddam Hussein - now the US embassy - where Mr Maliki had been invited on the pretence he would be taking part in a video-conferenced "joint cabinet meeting" with their American counterparts.

Mr Bush told him: "I have expressed our country's desire to work with you but I appreciate you recognise the fact the future of the country is in your hands."

The trip had been in the works for some time, officials said. But it came as the White House sought to capitalise on recent positive developments, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the final appointments to the Iraqi cabinet.

The visit was Mr Bush's second to Baghdad, after his foray to celebrate Thanksgiving in 2003 with the troops. Three years and the loss of some 2,500 US servicemen later, the mood is more sombre. The President again made it clear that the 132,000-strong US force would only be drawn down when Iraqi forces proved they could ensure security. He has also warned the insurgency would continue, despite the elimination of Zarqawi.

A statement from Abu Hamza al-Mujaher, the man believed to have succeeded Zarqawi as leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq threatened horrific attacks "in the coming days". It said: "Don't be overcome with joy about killing our sheikh Abu Musab, God bless his soul, because he has left lions behind him."

* People believe the presence of US troops in Iraq is a greater threat to Middle East stability than Iran's government, a poll of residents in European and Muslim countries showed.