BAGHDAD, Iraq - Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Iraq Sunday under heavy security, touring the country after parliamentary elections that he suggested were a major step toward drawing down U.S. forces.
"The participation levels all across the country were remarkable," Cheney told reporters after an hourlong briefing from the war's top military commanders. "And that's exactly what need to happen as you build a political structure in a self-governing Iraq that can unify the various segments of the population and ultimately take over responsibility for their own security."
The daylong tour was so shrouded in secrecy that even Iraq's prime minister said he was surprised when he showed up for what he thought was a meeting with the U.S. ambassador only to see Cheney waiting to greet him.
Cheney's tour of the country came on the same day that President Bush was giving a prime-time Oval Office address to the nation on Iraq.
Cheney's aides said the timing was a coincidence, but regardless, the two events combined in a public relations blitz aimed at capitalizing on the Iraqi elections to rebuild U.S. support for the unpopular war.
The vice president visited with Iraq's leaders and military commanders in the Green Zone, saw an Iraqi troop training demonstration at Taji air base, lunched with soldiers who provided security for Thursday's election and gave a speech to troops.
Cheney flew around the Baghdad area in a pack of eight fast-moving Blackhawk helicopters with guns mounted on the sides. He flew along the airport road that has been the site of many insurgent attacks and passed over the courthouse where Saddam Hussein's trial is being held.
He saw rows of housing for soldiers at Camp Victory, fortified by concrete walls. Smoke from the trash fires burning throughout the occupied city drifted up toward his chopper.
A majority of Americans have said they disapprove of Bush's handling of the war and the White House has been pushing back hard against calls for troop withdrawals.
"You've heard some prominent voices advocating a sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq," Cheney told hundreds of service members gathered to hear a "mystery guest."
"Some have suggested that the war is not winnable and a few seem almost eager to conclude the struggle is already over. But they are wrong. The only way to lose this fight is to quit and that is not an option."
Cheney last visited Iraq in March 1991, when he was defense secretary for the current president's father. He became the highest ranking official in the current administration to visit the country since Bush's unannounced trip on Thanksgiving Day 2003.
His first stop was the U.S. ambassador's residence, where he had an hourlong briefing with Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, top U.S. commander Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid, chief of Central Command.
While he was inside, a suspicious vehicle was stopped about a mile away and Secret Service agents warned there might be a loud blast if security forces decided to detonate it. But no blast was heard and Cheney went on to have meetings there with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Talabani, his finger still stained purple as proof that he had voted three days earlier, thanked Cheney profusely for coming and called him a "hero of liberating Iraq." Cheney said even though final results are not in, he is encouraged by preliminary figures showing a jump in turnout in areas such as Al-Anbar province with large populations of Sunni Muslims, who have been the backbone of the insurgency.
"The terrorists know that as freedom take hold the ideologies of hatred and resentment will lose their appeal," Cheney told the troops.
At Taji air base, home of the 9th Iraqi Army Division, Cheney saw tanks that the Iraqis have rebuilt from scratch and watched while they practiced a vehicle sweep at a security checkpoint.
While Cheney was surrounded by U.S. forces guarding him with guns at the ready, the Iraqi soldiers had no weapons but held their arms out like they were carrying imaginary guns.
The unannounced stop in Iraq came at the beginning of a five-day tour aimed at strengthening support for the war on terror. The vice president and his wife, Lynne, planned to make stops in Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia before returning to Washington early Thursday morning.
Cheney's staff kept the Iraq portion secret from reporters traveling with him, waiting to reveal the plan until Air Force Two was preparing for refueling in the United Kingdom. Once on the ground, Cheney's entourage transferred from his red, white and blue 757 to an unmarked C-17 cargo plane that would fly overnight en route to Baghdad International Airport.
Mrs. Cheney did not go along, but stayed on the 757 that headed on to Oman. Cheney's aides said any reporter who did not agree to keep the trip secret until the vice president was prepared to leave Iraq would be sent on to Oman with his wife.
After touting last week's elections in Iraq, Cheney was celebrating another emerging democracy at the opening of the Afghan parliament Monday.