- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that U.S. forces will now hunt down the next leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, who was named by a Web site as the replacement for slain terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“The successor to Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice,” Mr. Bush said after spending the day discussing strategy with U.S. officials at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Al-Muhajer was not among the names that U.S. intelligence officials reportedly expected as successors. His name was posted on a Web site used by al Qaeda in Iraq, which called him “a beloved brother with jihadi experience and a strong footing in knowledge,” according to the Associated Press.

The administration argues that with Zarqawi dead and a new government in Iraq, the nation has a chance to prove that it can succeed. Mr. Bush said yesterday that Iraq’s neighbors must step up to help out.

Mr. Bush also repeated his pledge to let the level of U.S. troops in Iraq be based on “conditions on the ground.” White House officials said troop levels were not a part of Mr. Bush’s discussion with his team during yesterday morning’s session.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and top intelligence officials met yesterday at Camp David and were joined in a teleconference yesterday by U.S. military officials in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Today, Mr. Bush and members of his Cabinet will have a teleconference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and members of his Cabinet to figure out ways that the United States can help Iraqi leaders achieve their goals.

The meetings were scheduled even before Zarqawi was killed last week, but that news has given the administration a window to make a case to voters that U.S. forces have made progress.

The Iraq debate promises to heat up in Congress this week. The House is scheduled to debate a Republican-written resolution that praised the U.S. efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other fronts in the war on terror and opposes setting a date for troop withdrawal.

In the Senate, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said he will introduce an amendment to the defense bill on the Senate floor this week calling for U.S. troops to be pulled out by the end of this year.

Mr. Kerry wants to couple troop withdrawals with a political settlement he said could be achieved by convening a summit of Iraq’s new government, leaders from the nations that border it and representatives of international organizations such as the United Nations’ Security Council and the European Union.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said that the administration must make a policy change and that Zarqawi’s death and the new government present such an opportunity.

“Right now, the administration does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq — it has a strategy to prevent defeat,” Mr. Biden said. “I hope that will begin to change at Camp David.”

Mr. Bush also said Iraq’s neighbors “ought to do more” to help the nation stabilize.

“We’re constantly working with our friends in the neighborhood to encourage them to support this new democracy,” he said, adding that nations that have pledged about $13 billion to help must stick to their commitments.

He said one problem is religion — Iraq has a Shi’ite prime minister and most neighboring nations are led by Sunni governments. But he said those other countries should see Iraq’s constitution as a model for unity.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Mr. Bush and his advisers did talk about Zarqawi’s death and his new successor, though he said it’s too early to tell what his death will mean. Mr. Bartlett said the group talked about whether groups will try to take advantage of a leadership vacuum.

Last week, asked whether Zarqawi’s location could have been tipped off by someone looking to take his place, White House press secretary Tony Snow said that would have been a dumb move.

“That would be a really stupid terrorist, because the life expectancy of people who have been succeeding these guys and the life expectancy of being Zarqawi’s number two has not been very good,” Mr. Snow said.

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