Bush makes surprise visit to Iraq

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President George Bush made a surprise visit to Iraq today, using the war zone as a backdrop to argue his case that the buildup of US troops is helping to stabilise the nation.

The president secretly flew 11 hours to Iraq as a showdown nears with Congress over whether his decision in January to order 30,000 more US troops to Iraq is working. He landed at an air base in Anbar province west of Baghdad.

Next week, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, testify before Congress. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by September 15, will determine the next chapter of the war.

The United States cannot sustain the troop buildup indefinitely. And with Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising US death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.

Bush stopped in Iraq ahead of his visit to Australia for an economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders. The trip was a closely held secret for obvious security reasons, although speculation about the trip arose late last month when first lady Laura Bush said she was staying home to tend to a pinched nerve in her neck.

Bush, who also went to Iraq at Thanksgiving 2003 and in June 2006, was scheduled to leave for Australia today, but Air Force One took off from Andrews Air Force Base last night instead.

He was joined by his top advisers, including National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Defence Secretary Robert Gates was travelling there separately. The mission to shore up support for the war was shared with only a small circle of White House staffers and members of the media, who were told that if news of his trip leaked early, it would be scrapped.