US President George Bush has hailed the killing of “the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq” but said it would not stop the violence there or bring a speedy withdrawal of US troops.
Officials were on the watch for possible retaliation in the US, while Bush laid plans for an Iraq strategy meeting with advisers early next week.
Confidence in the president’s handling of Iraq was at its lowest point ever, according to an AP-Ipsos poll taken before the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was announced.
An Air Force F-16 dropped precision-guided bombs on an al-Qaida safe house north of Baghdad, killing al-Zarqawi and several others, the US said. Special operations forces had tracked an al-Zarqawi adviser, Sheik Abdul Rahman, who unwittingly led US forces to the building.
“Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues,” a grim-faced Bush said during an appearance yesterday in the White House Rose Garden. “We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said last night that there were no plans to raise the nation’s terror alert because al-Zarqawi’s death “does not, in itself, directly increase the threat to the homeland”.
The US has about 133,000 troops in Iraq more than three years into an increasingly unpopular war.
The AP-Ipsos poll this week, before word of the killing, showed more Americans than ever thought the war in Iraq was a mistake.
Al-Zarqawi was one of the few identifiable enemies in the war, which has changed from a conventional military confrontation to a campaign to counter guerrilla-style insurgent attacks on US forces and Iraqi civilians. The Jordanian-born terrorist is believed to have personally beheaded two US hostages in Iraq, and he claimed responsibility for attacks in and out of the country that killed many more.
“The ideology of terror has lost its most visible, aggressive leader,” Bush said, calling al-Zarqawi the most wanted terrorist in Iraq and the “operational commander of the terrorist movement” there.
The war has not seen the downfall of such an iconic figure since late 2003 when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured.
Shortly afterward, Iraq’s new prime minister announced long-delayed political appointments that Washington hopes will help inspire confidence and gradually sap the Sunni Arab-driven insurgency of popular support.
Bush planned to convene his defence and foreign policy advisers at Camp David next week for a two-day strategy session. There also will be a teleconference discussion with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and members of the Iraqi Cabinet.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said al-Zarqawi’s death “will not mean the end of all violence in that country.”
“Over the past several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands,” Rumsfeld said at a meeting of NATO ministers in Brussels, Belgium.
Bush learned of the killing on Wednesday afternoon during an Oval Office meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten, said spokesman Tony Snow.
Bush discussed the events by phone yesterday with Maliki and also with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Britain has been the Bush administration’s staunchest ally in Iraq, with about 8,000 troops on the ground. Bush also talked by phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.
The AP-Ipsos poll found that 59% of adults say the US made a mistake in going to war in Iraq – the highest level yet. Approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq dipped to 33%, a new low.
Only 68% of Republicans, 57% of white evangelicals and 51% of self-described conservatives – key groups in Bush’s base of support – approved of his handling of Iraq.
A US counterterrorism official predicted little disruption to al Qaida activities because of the decentralised nature of the terror group, but also said the charismatic al-Zarqawi would not be an easy figure to replace.
Al-Zarqawi provided guidance and strategy for insurgent attacks, was an able fundraiser and maintained a long list of foreign contacts far beyond Iraq, the official said. Without al-Zarqawi, the official said, it is unclear how well his organisation will be able to launch attacks outside Iraq such as a hotel bombing last year in Amman, Jordan, that killed guests at a Palestinian wedding.
A US defence intelligence official warned that there could be retaliatory attacks in the US or elsewhere. Both officials requested anonymity because events were still unfolding.
Chertoff said his department was watching for signs of retaliation or other threats to the US. But he indicated there were no immediate plans to step up domestic security measures.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican, said al-Zarqawi’s death “reinforces our view that American forces will hunt down and destroy terrorists where they hide“.
Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who was his party’s nominee for president in 2004, said the killing, coupled with the political events in Iraq, should speed the US exit.
“Its time to work with the new Iraqi government to bring our combat troops home by the end of this year,” said Kerry, who supported the 2003 US-led invasion.