- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that killing Abu Musab Zarqawi was a great message to send to the Iraqi people and a “major blow” to al Qaeda.

“They’ve lost their general, they’ve lost the person that the top management of al Qaeda was counting on,” he said, adding that by killing Zarqawi, U.S. troops had thwarted al Qaeda’s plan for Iraq’s top terrorist to export his brand of terrorism to other countries.

“He was the person that had made the declaration that it’s just a matter of time for America and other democracies to leave so that they could then develop safe haven from which to launch further attacks,” Mr. Bush said.

Speaking with reporters yesterday during a break in meetings at Camp David with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Mr. Bush said it’s still too soon to know whether the United States can start drawing down its forces in Iraq.

The Democratic National Committee released a statement yesterday accusing Mr. Bush of continuously hinting he would pull troops out, but never making good on it.

The group pointed to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s assessment that Iraqi troops will be ready to secure his country in 18 months, and said Mr. Bush should have a solid idea by now of when American troops can leave.

“With administration officials hinting at possible troop reductions, and the Iraqi prime minister’s own assessment, why is the president reluctant to agree?” the statement asked. “He should come clean with the American people and provide a realistic plan so 2006 can be a year of transition in Iraq.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill reacted to news of Zarqawi’s killing by praising the troops, though some continued to call for bringing them home. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said the news means U.S. forces should be able to come home before the end of the year.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett criticized that statement yesterday, saying the idea was “striking in its boldness as well as in how ineffective it would be.”

Congress next week will have a chance to debate Iraq. The Senate begins debating a defense bill, which opens the chance for amendments on Iraq policy, and the House has scheduled floor time to debate and vote on a resolution reaffirming the war on terror.

The president will convene two days of strategy sessions at Camp David on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, U.S. officials will take stock of the situation, and on Tuesday they will hold a teleconference with Mr. al-Maliki and members of his Cabinet.

The meetings were planned before Zarqawi’s death, but both that and the news that Mr. al-Maliki had finalized his Cabinet have given the administration a boost.

A senior official, briefing reporters yesterday on the condition of anonymity, said the administration is pleased to see Mr. al-Maliki setting priorities for Iraq such as security and energy production. The official said the goal of the meetings is to see how the United States can help Mr. al-Maliki meet those goals.

“The premise of this is how do we make Maliki’s plan succeed,” the official said. “It’s not the American government doing it. It is his plan, it’s his sovereign government, his sovereign country, and our goal is to say how do we help him succeed.”

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