BAGHDAD—U.S. troops stationed in Iraq hailed an unannounced and unaccompanied visit Monday from Barney, the senior White House dog who belongs to President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.
Landing in Baghdad's Green Zone amid extremely tight security, the Scottish terrier met with nearly 800 troops at a military mess hall, then visited Camp Victory, the U.S. military headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad. In both locations, the 6-year-old First Dog was greeted with loud cheers and standing ovations by servicemen and women.
"Barney's visit really cheered us all up," said Army Spc. Anthony Udall, who was given the privilege of escorting Barney across the airport tarmac. "I can't tell you how great it is that the White House would send one of its own to spend some time with us out here."
Although the dog was in Iraq for less than a day, he maintained a busy schedule while there. Events included handshakes with top U.S. field commanders, a tour of the base's new recreation facility, and a ride in an armored vehicle. Besides sitting and staying at a military briefing, Barney also participated in the ground-breaking for a new visitors reception center at Camp Victory, during which he energetically dug alongside camp officials.
"As soon as he stepped off the plane, it was clear he was interested in what was happening on the ground here," said Gen. George Casey, commander of Multi-National Force-Iraq who met with the First Dog in the courtyard outside his office at Camp Victory. "He seemed extremely enthusiastic about the whole situation and he was even visibly excited about some of the progress we're making."
But the visit's highlight was the First Dog's encounter with soldiers, who were clearly taken with his presence. Sitting with his head cocked to one side, he listened intently to the soldiers' concerns before receiving a treat and a pat on the head. Barney showed further solidarity with the troops by accepting an impromptu invitation to a belated Thanksgiving feast, during which he impressed servicemen and women with his hearty, nondiscriminating appetite.
The First Dog also received a tummy rub courtesy of the 100th Infantry Battalion.
Barney's appearance marks the first time a high-ranking Bush Administration official has toured the war-torn nation since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit in April.
"Barney seemed very genuine and sincere, like he was really into being here," said Pfc. Steven Koch, who participated in a photo op with the First Dog. "The fact that he took time out of his busy schedule to play ball with me and my buddies means the world to us. It's nice to see a happy face from home."
Added Koch, "He's a good boy."
During his visit, Barney impressed top military leadership with his attentiveness and steadfastness, yet he tactfully avoided addressing such highly charged issues as extended tours of duty and the shortage of effective body armor.
Critics say the visit diverted time and energy away from Barney's domestic responsibilities. Yet a statement issued today by the White House defended the decision to send Barney to Iraq, saying it was "the absolute least this administration could have done for the brave men and women fighting for freedom" in Iraq.
The statement also pointed to the success of the January 2006 visit of the Bushes' other Scottish terrier, Miss Beazley, to troops serving in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and, in November 2005, the favorable reception given to Ofelia, their Crawford, TX–based Longhorn cow, in areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.