The turkey has landed: how Bush cooked up a secret mission to give thanks to his troops

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George Bush delivered a dramatic Thanksgiving Day surprise last night by flying, under cover of darkness, into Iraq on board Air Force One.

Two hundred and ten days after declaring an end to major combat, President Bush slipped into the unstable and dangerous Middle Eastern country that his troops now occupy with the lights on his plane darkened and the windows blacked out.

The extraordinary mission ­ no American president has visited a war zone since Richard Nixon flew to Vietnam in 1969 ­ was clearly calculated to burnish Mr Bush's image as he prepares for a re-election campaign that will be overshadowed by violence in Iraq and the rising toll of American casualties. It was spent with 600 soldiers at a turkey and sweet potato dinner in a mess hall at Baghdad airport and lasted a mere two and a half hours.

Yet it was enough to secure valuable prime-time television coverage on Thanksgiving Day, featuring pictures of a determined president rallying his troops after a grim month in which 70 lives have been lost. The operation was surrounded in extraordinary secrecy, and was known beforehand only to a handful of the President's closest aides. The White House communications director, Dan Bartlett, told a group of hand-picked reporters invited on the flight and sworn to secrecy that "if this breaks while we are in the air, we're turning around".

Even Laura Bush, the President's wife, was reportedly kept out of the loop until the last moment. In a deft stroke of misinformation, the White House had said that President Bush would be eating Thanksgiving Day dinner at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and even released details of the menu.

His parents, George and Barbara Bush, travelled there expecting to see him. Instead, unknown even to secret service agents guarding his Texas ranch, Mr Bush flew back to Washington DC from Texas on Wednesday evening to begin the clandestine flight to Baghdad.

It was a moment of extraordinary political theatre as Paul Bremer, the top US official in Iraq, told troops he had a Thanksgiving message from the President and that the most "senior" US 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?"

Enter Mr Bush. "I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere ­ thanks for inviting me to dinner," the President, wearing a coy smile and with tears in his eyes, told the soldiers.

In spectacular vote-winning form, he posed with a platter of roast turkey. And for 10 minutes he dished out mashed potatoes and corn to the the 1st Armoured Division and the 82nd Airborne Division.

News of the visit only broke in the US after Air Force One had taken off from Baghdad and was on its way home. And no sooner was the visit made public in Baghdad, than the city was shaken by the sounds of conflict ­ repeated loud explosions, gunfire and ambulance sirens.

The administration will be hoping that the video images will help erase memories of a not dissimilar staged event on 1 May in which the President landed on an American aircraft carrier to announce that the war in Iraq had been won. As the violence has worsened, that day has come to haunt the White House. This time, wearing a US army jacket, he told the troops that America "stands solidly" behind them, and ­ to whoops of approval ­ that the US military was doing a "fantastic job".

As well as potatoes, he also served them, and the television cameras, with a portion of his familiar "war on terror" rhetoric. "You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq," he said, "so we don't have to face them in our own country."

Not that the mere fact of the President having spent two and a half hours in Iraq is likely to do anything to change events in Iraq or curb the violence there. Nearly 300 US services personnel have died in hostile action, 183 of them since 1 May when Mr Bush declared an end to major combat.

More than 60 US troops were killed by hostile fire in November, more than any other month since the end of major combat. But it was a bold and meticulously orchestrated gesture that will have no political downside. Mr Bush will also have artfully upstaged Senator Hillary Clinton who is due to visit the Iraq capital this morning. "You are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful," he told the soldiers.

The visit came during a lull in the violence, which may have been linked to the Muslim Eid-al-Fitr holiday. Some Iraqis were unimpressed. "To hell with Bush," said Mohammed al-Jubouri. "He is another Mongol in a line of invaders who have destroyed Iraq."