In a highly unusual manoeuvre, Bush left his Texas ranch on Wednesday night, arrived in Iraq on Thursday and spent 2-1/2 hours with the troops before leaving aboard his presidential
aircraft Air Force One, US media reported.

The troops had been told that the Thanksgiving dinner VIP guests would be Paul Bremer, the US occupation administrator in Iraq, and Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of occupation forces in Iraq.

"I bring a message on behalf of America: We thank you for your service, we are proud of you and America stands solidly behind you," Bush told about 600 soldiers, who were stunned to see the President emerge from a side door inside a military mess hall at Baghdad International Airport.

The troops, mostly from the US Army's 1st Armored
Division and the 82nd Airborne, had no idea Bush would be
there. 

'Warm meal'

Without hinting of the enormous surprise to come, Paul Bremer told the soldiers he was supposed to read the president's Thanksgiving proclamation to them but would instead defer to the most senior person on the premises. 

Bush's surprise visit aimed at
boosting the morale of US soldiers

At that point, Bush emerged wearing a military jacket and
loud cheering began. "I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere," Bush said. "Thanks for inviting me to dinner ... I can't think of a finer group of folks to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all."

Bush's trip was a well-guarded secret, announced only after he landed in Baghdad. 

In a ruse staged in the name of security, the White House had put out word that Bush would be spending Thanksgiving at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, with his wife, Laura, his parents and other family members.  Even the dinner menu was announced. 

Sworn to secrecy

Instead, Bush slipped away from his home without notice Wednesday evening and flew to Washington to pick up aides and a handful of reporters sworn to secrecy.

Plans called for the trip to be abandoned if word had leaked out in advance.Within the White House, only a handful of senior aides knew about the trip, officials said. 

Security fears were underscored by regular attacks against US forces in Iraq. More than 60 US troops were killed by resistance attacks in November, more than any other month since the end of major combat in Iraq on 1 May.