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Cheney Surprise Visit To Iraq

Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Iraq Sunday under heavy security, touring the country after parliamentary elections that he suggested were a major step toward withdrawing U.S. forces.

"The participation levels all across the country were remarkable," Cheney told reporters after an hour-long briefing from the war's top military commanders. "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 daylong tour was so shrouded in secrecy that even Iraq's prime minister said he was surprised when he showed up for what he thought was a meeting with the U.S. ambassador only to see Cheney waiting to greet him.

Cheney's tour of the country came on the same day that President Bush was giving a prime-time Oval Office address to the nation on Iraq.

Cheney's aides said the timing was a coincidence, but regardless, the two events combined in a public relations blitz aimed at capitalizing on the elections to rebuild support for the unpopular war.

The vice president visited with Iraq's leaders and military commanders in the Green Zone, saw an Iraqi troop training demonstration at Taji air base, lunched with soldiers who provided security for Thursday's election and gave a speech to troops.

Cheney flew around the Baghdad area in a pack of eight fast-moving Blackhawk helicopters with guns mounted on the sides. He flew along the airport road that has been the site of many insurgent attacks, and passed over the courthouse where Saddam's Hussein's trial is being held.

He saw rows of housing for soldiers at Camp Victory fortified by concrete walls. Smoke for the trash fires burning throughout the occupied city drifted up toward his chopper.

A majority of Americans have said they disapprove of Bush's handling of the war, and the White House has been pushing back hard against calls for troop withdrawals.

"You've heard some prominent voices advocating a sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq," Cheney told hundreds of service members gathered to hear a "mystery guest." "Some have suggested that the war is not winnable and a few seem almost eager to conclude the struggle is already over. But they are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit and that is not an option."

Cheney last visited Iraq in March 1991, when he was defense secretary for the current president's father. He became the highest ranking official in the current administration to visit the country since Bush's unannounced trip on Thanksgiving Day 2003.

His first stop was the U.S. ambassador's residence, where he had an hour-long briefing with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid.

While he was inside, a suspicious vehicle was stopped about a mile away and Secret Service agents warned there might be a loud blast if security forces decided to detonate it. But no blast was heard and Cheney went on to have meetings there with the surprised Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

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