How George W. Bush kept his 2003 Thanksgiving surprise visit to Iraq under wraps

Matt Saintsing
November 19, 2018 - 3:53 pm

Courtesy of National Archives

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Officially, President George W. Bush was planning on enjoying a pleasant Thanksgiving evening surrounded by family at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2003. Unofficially, however, top Pentagon and White House aides worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the President of the United States halfway around the world to visit troops in Iraq. 

They pulled it off. 

It was the first time an American president visited Iraq, stunning the world and more than 600 Army soldiers who didn’t expect such a high-profile official.  The trip was planned for weeks, but news of the historic visit was kept a secret until after he was safely out of Iraq. 

U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.

Air Force One flew from Texas to Andrew Air Force Base the day before Thanksgiving in 2003. The flight was shrouded in such mystery that the airport ground crew thought it was a maintenance flight and was not aware that Bush was aboard—he entered the plane through the back wearing a work coat and baseball cap. 

Along for the ride, but still unaware of their final destination, were reporters instructed by White House staff to—back when one could—remove the batteries of their cell phones so they could not be tracked. 

Bush was spotted by journalists after landing at Andrews when they were transported to the plane that would ultimately take them to Baghdad. President Bush was seen making a phone motion with his pinky and thumb raising it to his head. “No calls, got it?” he said. “No calls.” 

While in the air, White House communications director Dan Bartlett told journalists that if any details of the flight leaked out, the entire trip would be cancelled. He also said that no reporting would be permitted until the president was on his way back to the United States.   

Some of Air Force One’s communications equipment had been shut off to preserve the stealth of the flight. 

Just after midnight on Thanksgiving Day, Bush gave the final go-ahead as he was assured the world did not know what was about to happen. 

About nine-and-a-half hours later, Air Force One touched down at Baghdad International Airport; even the people on the ground did not know it was President Bush. 

Some 600 soldiers from the 1st Armored Division and 82nd Airborne Division were gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. They were told to expect a visit by Lt. Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of all coalition ground forces at the time. 

Paul Bremmer, an American diplomat who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority, told the soldiers he had a special holiday message from the president. “Let’s see if we’ve got anyone more senior here,” he said while looking towards the stage. 

Photo Courtesy of the George W. Bush Presidential Library

When Bush emerged, the room erupted with cheers, with several soldiers standing on tables and chairs. The president joked he was “just looking for a warm meal somewhere, thank you for inviting me to dinner."

“I bring a message on behalf of America,” he said. “We thank you for your service, we’re proud of you, and America stands solidly behind you.” 

He capped the visit off by serving Thanksgiving dinner to troops; a tradition senior military leaders take part in every year. 

Emphasizing the exact reason for the visit, a soldier approached Bush and said “I’m so glad you came. Thanks for coming. It’s important for us to know the people of America support us.” 

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