Bush's final Iraq visit marks gains, meets contempt

While President Bush traveled to Baghdad Sunday to hail progress, the war is far from over in places like Mosul where US and Iraqi forces still battle insurgents linked to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Thaier al-Sudan/Reuters
U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki exchange official documents during a joint news conference in Baghdad. Bush made a farewell visit to Baghdad on Sunday, flying in secret out of Washington to declare that while great strides have been taken toward peace, "the war is not over".

President Bush arrived in Iraq Sunday for one brief, final visit to the country his administration has irreparably changed.

"There is still more work to be done," Mr. Bush said after his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The war is not over," he said, adding that "it is decisively on its way to being won."

Bush's trip to Baghdad marks the fast-approaching end to his involvement in the war he launched in March 2003 – a war many Iraqis saw as Bush's personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein. Although grateful to the US for toppling Mr. Hussein, many Iraqis view the aftermath with scorn and dismiss the notion that the US came here in the name of democracy or to make the region safer.

That anger was on full display at Bush's press conference with Mr. Maliki. An Iraqi reporter hurled both of his shoes at the president's head – narrowly missing Bush – and shouted, "This is a farewell kiss, dog."

The act is an Arab symbol of contempt, much like when Iraqis hit Hussein's statue with their shoes after the US invasion.

While Bush's visit was intended to mark gains made across Iraq – and there have been plenty over the past year – in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul the forces unleashed by toppling Saddam Hussein are still persistent and apparent.

Roadside bomb attacks still occur almost every day and businesses are just beginning to reopen after US and Iraqi forces wrestled the worst parts of the city from insurgents earlier this year. Some areas of Mosul still look like a war zone.

Mosul, Iraq's second or third largest city, depending on who is counting, has perhaps the most diverse ethnic mix in the country. Believed to have a slight Sunni Arab majority, the city also has a large Kurdish population, significant numbers of Christians, and almost every other minority.

Provincial elections in January are likely to be the first since the war began in which former Baathists, some of whom have returned under the Iraqi government's reconciliation policy, will participate in political life. It's a volatile mix and one in which US forces have been sometimes the catalyst for violence and sometimes the glue that holds the city's fractures together.

In a family garden on the outskirts of Mosul, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Hashim talked about Iraq's legacy of foreign occupiers.

"The British left us things we still use to this day – bridges, institutions," says Sheikh Hashim, a descendent of the prophet Muhammad, talking about Iraq's legacy of foreign occupiers.

And the American legacy? "Until now the most important goal was getting rid of the dictatorship," he says. "The other things we'll see later. The Americans did not come here for no reason."

Mosul is one of the places where US troops will likely be asked to stay beyond the June 30 deadline to withdraw to bases, as outlined by the newly signed US-Iraqi security pact.

"They have the right to ask us to stay and help. I would think they would do that in areas where there's still a pretty good presence of Al Qaeda – like Mosul," says Brig. Gen. Robert Brown, deputy commander of the 25th Infantry Division. The other area where that might happen, he says, is Diyala Province, where the provincial capital of Baquba is grappling with continuing violence.

Nearly 150,000 US troops remain in Iraq and more than 4,209 members of the US military have died in the conflict. The number of Iraqi civilian deaths declined to their lowest monthly levels in November (with 290 Iraqis killed) since the war began. There has been an estimated 80 percent drop in attacks nationwide since March.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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