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By Mike Hudson

A few years ago, President George W. Bush made a surprise Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad to have his picture taken helping to serve the troops their turkey dinner. The sight of a chicken carrying a turkey into a roomful of heroes was memorable enough, but the irony became even more delicious a day or two later when it was reported that the turkey had been as fake as Bush's play Army suit.

The big bird was made of plastic, and once again our feckless leader provided ample evidence that he wouldn't know the difference between reality and fantasy if it came up and bit him, as it has in Iraq.

Still, those were happier times for Bush. Basking in the warm afterglow of Shock and Awe, with reruns of his "Mission Accomplished" aircraft-carrier strut still being shown on television by Chris Matthews, and the stench of war crimes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as yet unsmelled, the president was still enjoying the kind of high that can only come to the leader of a superpower through the devastation of a small and impoverished nation.

Since then, of course, the war in Iraq has taken several dozen nasty turns for the worse. Even its staunchest supporters now call the war unwinnable. More Americans die every day, and as many as 1,000 Iraqi civilians are slaughtered each week. Billions and billions of your tax dollars are poured into the morass on an ongoing basis, only to be devoured greedily by the very same profiteering Halliburton subsidiaries Vice President Dick Cheney helped found.

Oh yeah, Vice President Dick Cheney. The coward who wheedled five deferments to keep him out of Vietnam and thinks guns are for shooting penned-up pheasants and the occasional trial lawyer made news this Thanksgiving with an alleged trip to Baghdad that allegedly never took place.

The morning headline, as carried by Reuters, was encouraging.

"Cheney visits troops in Iraq for Thanksgiving," it read.

Wow. Maybe he's not such a coward after all, I thought. Things are pretty tough in Baghdad these days, especially on that road -- the "Highway of Death," they call it -- that leads from the airport to the city.

"The American embassy said it could not confirm the visit, but that Cheney could be in the country to visit troops for the Thanksgiving holiday," Reuters first reported.

Likewise, the U.S. military was playing coy.

"I'm not confirming or denying he's here. I'm trying to figure that out," said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.

Well, of course they wouldn't confirm or deny it, I thought. Don't want to tip the bad guys off to the presence of a high-value target in their midst. Two hours later, Cheney's office denied he was in Iraq, but then seemed to hedge its bets. A spokeswoman for Cheney, Megan McGinn, told Reuters in Washington, "He is not there now." Asked if he had plans to travel there later on Thursday, she said, "Not to my knowledge."

Asked whether Cheney was in Baghdad or anywhere else in Iraq, the U.S. military said it was "unaware of any information of the vice president being in Baghdad."

Speaking from Baghdad, Lt. Col. Garver said that the vice president was not in Iraq "as far as we know."

Plausible deniability, it's called. To believe the pronouncements of Ms. McGinn or Lt. Col. Garver, one would have to further believe that nobody knew where the vice president of the United States was.

It wasn't until 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning -- more than five hours after the initial reports -- that the unequivocal denials began. Cheney wasn't in Iraq, had no plans to go to Iraq, et cetera and so on. He was spending the holiday at an undisclosed location somewhere in Washington.

In Iraq, meanwhile, and Baghdad in particular, Thanksgiving had turned into a very bad day indeed. U.S. soldiers mistakenly opened fire on a van carrying Iraqi laborers to their jobs in Sadr City, Baghdad's Shiite slum, killing four and wounding eight. In a separate incident, three Marines were killed, bringing to 52 the number of American soldiers to die there in November.

And as Thanksgiving morning progressed, the violence escalated. Mortars and car bombs shook the city, and the rattle of small-arms fire echoed in the streets. The death toll was horrendous, with 216 Iraqis dying in one coordinated series of car bombings alone. The Baghdad airport and the Highway of Death that leads to it were ordered closed as Iraq's feeble military and police forces struggled in vain to stop the savagery their fellow countrymen were inflicting on each other.

For their part, the Americans wisely elected to stay in their barracks and take the day off from trying to referee what has clearly become a civil war.

But you've got to wonder. At what point did reports of the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground prompt our chickenhawk vice president to tap the pilot of Air Force Two on the shoulder and say, "Turn this thing around. I'm not going down there."

At what point, exactly, did Cheney make the executive decision that a picture of him serving up a plastic turkey -- and some video of him telling the troops on the ground how "we're" going to win this thing -- just wasn't worth the possibility of becoming a casualty in a war he largely started.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 28 2006