President Bush was careful not to gloat yesterday as he announced the death of Abu Musab Zarqawi, but he called it a victory and White House officials said it cuts through bad news reports and reminds Americans that U.S. troops are winning the war in Iraq.
“Zarqawi’s death is a severe blow to al Qaeda,” Mr. Bush said in an early morning statement in the White House Rose Garden, timed to let Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki make the first announcement in Baghdad. “It’s a victory in the global war on terror, and it is an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide of this struggle.”
The president first learned of the possibility that a U.S. strike had succeeded in killing Iraq’s top terrorist at 4:35 p.m. Wednesday from Stephen J. Hadley, his national security adviser. Mr. Bush was in the Oval Office, along with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was overseas.
At 9:20 p.m., Mr. Hadley told the president that military officials had confirmed it was Zarqawi, based on fingerprints, tattoos and scars on the body.
The White House took pains to try to temper the news with a sobering look at the challenges that remain, saying that yesterday’s spate of violence was to be expected and that there are serious challenges ahead.
Still, Zarqawi’s death, coupled with news that Mr. al-Maliki had completed his Cabinet by naming three ministers, gave the White House a chance to make a clear case that the war on terror is succeeding.
“We have been crushing the opposition, but what happens is the opposition has been controlling the airwaves with scattered, fragmentary acts of violence,” said press secretary Tony Snow. “In this case, this is the equivalent of winning a battle, because it allows people to focus on the kind of activities that are going on.”
As for the domestic debate, Mr. Snow said that only time will tell what effect it has on those calling for troops to be pulled out of Iraq and that he doubted the success would carry over to domestic parts of the president’s agenda, such as earning him political capital on immigration.
“There are a lot of people on the Hill who support the president on the war and don’t support him on immigration. I don’t think they’re suddenly going to say, ‘Whoop, changed my mind,’” Mr. Snow said. “Those are still legislative issues that involve people’s passions and political beliefs.”
Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill praised the troops for the strike.
“This ruthless thug who abused the true meaning of Islam was an intruder on Iraqi soil, and it’s good news that he’s dead,” said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. “Our troops did an incredible job hunting him down and destroying him, and all of America is proud of their skill and commitment.”
Mr. Kerry and some other Democrats said Zarqawi’s death and the completion of the new Cabinet in Iraq mean that it’s time for Iraqi troops to take over security and for U.S. troops to withdraw.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said the “very significant hit” was a blow to the foreign terrorists in Iraq but said Zarqawi’s killing does nothing to cut down on ex-Ba’athist insurgents or sectarian militias.
Pollster John Zogby said yesterday’s news will have little effect on the president’s dismal approval ratings and will mean next to nothing in the upcoming congressional elections.
“I don’t see where it helps,” he said, noting that Republicans are no longer firmly behind Mr. Bush.
“Killing Zarqawi doesn’t stop the insurgency. But Republicans are also alienated from the president over illegal wiretapping and the huge budget deficits and immigration,” he said, adding that Republicans have squandered the base they rode to election victories during the past six years.
Mr. Bush spent yesterday talking with world leaders, including a 25-minute conversation with Mr. al-Maliki just before he spoke to Americans at 7:31 a.m. He also spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair by telephone and held previously scheduled meetings with the presidents of Chile and Latvia.
The administration plans to capitalize on yesterday’s news by holding what the White House described as a two-day working session Monday and Tuesday at Camp David. On Monday, Mr. Bush will meet with his national-security team and key Cabinet members to evaluate progress in the war, and on Tuesday, Mr. Bush and his team will hold a teleconference with Mr. al-Maliki and his Cabinet to discuss how best to proceed in Iraq.
Mr. Snow said not to expect the leaders to discuss troop withdrawals.
He also would not speculate on how yesterday’s news compared with other significant days in the war on terror, such as the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But he said Zarqawi left a path of death where he went, including last weekend in Baqouba, and said Americans should be aware of that.
“Over the weekend, they found nine heads in a box. They beheaded people and left the heads in a box. They hijack a bus full of students, and they slaughter the students,” Mr. Snow said. “That’s what Zarqawi brought to Baqouba. So for people in Iraq, I think this sends a powerful signal. Whether it’s the most important day or the most positive day, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a positive development.”
As for the U.S. situation, the FBI says there is no indication that the U.S. will be hit by a terrorist attack in revenge for Zarqawi’s death, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there “is no credible intelligence to suggest a specific or imminent threat to the homeland.”
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.