By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 15, 2008 - In his final trip to Iraq and Afghanistan as commander in chief, President George W. Bush brought season's greetings from "a proud and grateful nation" to deployed U.S. troops yesterday and early this morning and thanked them for their service. "Merry Christmas to you, happy holidays," Bush told troops during his first stop of the trip, Al Faw Palace on Camp Victory in Baghdad. "This is a time of year to give thanks for our many blessings, and the greatest blessing we have is freedom and the fact that we've got a United States military to defend that freedom."
Bush praised the diplomats, servicemembers, Iraqis and coalition partners who have made freedom in Iraq a reality. He recalled the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that eventually led to the Iraq invasion, citing that "Iraq had a record of supporting terror, a record of developing and using weapons of mass destruction, was routinely firing at American military personnel [and] systematically violating United Nations resolutions."
Life for the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein's regime was a nightmare, he added.
"But thanks to you, the Iraq we stand in tonight is dramatically freer, dramatically safer, and dramatically better than the Iraq we found eight years ago," Bush said. "I doubt in [Saddam's] worst nightmares he ever would have dreamt that we'd be standing in one of his palaces."
Fewer attacks and casualties have occurred in recent months than at any time since the invasion in March 2003. And less than two weeks ago, Iraq's presidency council passed two agreements outlining plans for U.S. troop withdrawal and setting the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Bush affirmed the two agreements in a Baghdad ceremony alongside Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prior to meeting with the troops.
"The dramatic turnaround you led in Iraq culminated in the two agreements," he told the troops. "These agreements show the way forward toward a historic day -- when American forces withdraw from a democratic and successful Iraq, and the war in this land is won."
Bush then left Baghdad on Air Force One, which he renamed "Rudolph One" in the spirit of the holiday season, and arrived at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, at around 5 a.m. local time today.
"Congratulations on your tremendous accomplishments," he told the troops there. "And above all, thank you for volunteering to defend the United States of America."
He noted the dramatic changes that have taken place throughout the past eight years in Afghanistan. The defeat of the Taliban was a landmark achievement, he said, but the mission did not end there.
"We could have replaced one group of thugs with another strongman," Bush said. "But all that would have done is invited the same problems that brought us the al-Qaida safe havens and the attacks on America in the first place. Those were the mistakes of the 1980s and 1990s, and we were not going to repeat them again in the 21st century."
Today, Afghanistan struggles to develop its government and economy. The Afghan Army and air corps has made improvements, but the police and border forces lack numbers, training and equipment. However, Bush said, he is confident Afghanistan will succeed.
U.S. commanders there have requested more than 20,000 additional troops to handle training and combat missions. Improved conditions in Iraq have allowed the Defense Department to begin shifting its efforts, with the first wave of new forces to arrive in Afghanistan in January.
"We want to lay the foundation of peace for generations to come," the president said. "We want to do the hard work now so our children and our grandchildren can grow up in a peaceful world."
Bush praised the families and American people for their support of military members, especially for their efforts during the holidays. He reminded the troops of the more than 1,000 coalition members who have given their lives for the fight in Afghanistan and to protect the world's freedoms. "Back home, their children are growing up without a mom or a dad," he said. "But all of our children are growing up with something else -- the promise of a safer America, the promise of a better world and the more likelihood for peace."