Bush stands by Iraq PM

US PRESIDENT George Bush yesterday made a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday to assure Iraqis that the United States stands with them and their new government.

"I've come to not only look you in the eye. I've also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word," he said, seated alongside newly-named Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"It's in our interest that Iraq succeeds."

The dramatic trip was held amid tight security and secrecy - Mr Maliki had just five minutes' notice that he was to meet the US president in person - and came as Mr Bush sought to bolster support for Iraq's fledgling government and US war policy at home.

The president told Mr Maliki he carried heavy responsibilities. "The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself," he said.

Iraqi government sources said Mr Bush told Mr Maliki privately that Iran must stop trying to exert its influence in Iraq.

"Bush said 'we have heard reports that Iran is interfering in Iraq and this must stop'," one of the sources said.

The United States has accused Iran of smuggling components for roadside bombs planted by insurgents and meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. Tehran has denied the allegations.

The president was also meeting US troops as part of what aides said was to be a visit of just over five hours to the war-scarred country. Mr Bush travelled to Baghdad less than a week after a US air strike killed al-Qaeda-in-Iraq terror chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Mr Bush's second unannounced visit since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Mr Maliki said that Iraq was "determined to succeed, and we have to defeat terrorists and defeat all the hardships".

"God willing, all the suffering will be over. And all the soldiers will return to their country with our gratitude for what they have offered, the sacrifice," Mr Maliki said through a translator.

He took the opportunity to announce the beginning of his long-awaited security plan for Baghdad, which will include a curfew and a ban on personal weapons.

Mr Maliki said in his news conference that the plan "will provide security and confront the terrorism and ... enable Iraqis to live in peace in Baghdad".

"The raids during this plan will be very tough ... because there will be no mercy towards those who show no mercy to our people," he said.

A senior Iraqi defence ministry official said that more than 40,000 Iraqi and US forces backed by tanks would be involved in the crackdown, which starts today and will be one of the biggest such operations since the 2003 war. It will see extra checkpoints and patrols in two major trouble spots - the districts of Dora and Adhamiya - as well as Mansour, which has also been hit by violence.

Mr Bush made it clear that the US military presence - now at about 132,000 troops - would continue for some time.

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

"The decisions you and your cabinet make will determine as to whether or not your country succeeds, can govern itself, can defend itself, can sustain itself. I am impressed with the cabinet you have assembled."

Mr Bush met with Mr Maliki in the heavily-fortified green zone at a palace once used by Saddam but which now serves temporarily as the US Embassy.

"Good to see you," exclaimed Mr Maliki as they met. "Thanks for having me," Bush responded.

They smiled broadly and shook hands vigorously in the high-domed marble room.

The trip was known only to a handful of aides and a small number of journalists sworn to secrecy because of the security threat to Mr Bush and members of his entourage.

The prime minister had been invited to the embassy on the pretense of taking part in a video conference with Mr Bush, supposedly at Camp David, the presidential retreat north of Washington.

Even Mr Bush's aides and advisers had expected the president to be at the table with them for the video conference. Instead, they saw him from Baghdad. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, were in on the secret.

The dangerous state of Iraq was spelled out by wave of bombings that hit the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk yesterday, killing at least 16 people, in what was seen as a bid by al-Qaeda to show the death of its leader would not stop its campaign of violence.

The organisation's new leader vowed to defeat "crusaders and Shiites" in Iraq, according to a statement posted on the web yesterday.

It appeared a day after the group announced that a man identified by the fake name Abu Hamza Muhajer would succeed Zarqawi as its leader.

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