WASHINGTON – The U.S. military's taking out Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi earned praise from politicians across the political spectrum Thursday but also hardened positions in the debate over the timing for withdrawing U.S. troops.
Zarqawi was killed along with his spiritual consultant Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi and eight other people Wednesday evening in a remote area 30 miles northeast of Baghdad in the volatile province of Diyala, just east of the provincial capital of Baqouba, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday. The Jordanian-born militant had a U.S.-designated $25 million bounty on his head.
In praising the military mission, President Bush noted that the death of Zarqawi is a blow to Al Qaeda and a victory in the global War on Terror, but it does not mean the war is coming to an end.
"Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues. We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue," Bush said during a statement from the White House Rose Garden.
Though operational details of the mission have been sparse, officials did say that 17 raids occurred in conjunction with the missile strike on Zarqawi, and more Al Qaeda leaders caught in the bombing have yet to be identified. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said U.S. and Iraqi intelligence found Zarqawi by following his spiritual adviser Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Iraqi, who was identified weeks ago with the help of "somebody inside the al-Zarqawi network."
"This is the kind of thing that can reinforce those who want to go ahead and stand up against terrorists in their midst," said White House press secretary Tony Snow, confirming that Iraqis provided much of the intelligence on the terrorists' whereabouts.
That's just what opponents of the war want to hear. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said with the success of the mission to take out Zarqawi, along with the announcement Thursday that al-Maliki had appointed an interior and a defense minister to his Cabinet, the United States should be moving toward the Democrats' goal of a "significant transition" for the war in Iraq in 2006.
"We, Democrats, have said that 2006 must be a year of significant transition in Iraq, where the Iraqis take responsibility for their government and their security. Hopefully, these appointments will take us closer to that time when our troops can come home," Pelosi, D-Calif., said.
In his own version of "mission accomplished," Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, also issued a statement calling for withdrawal on a short timetable.
"With the end of al-Zarqawi and the confirmation of the final vital cabinet ministries in Iraq's new government, it's another sign that it's time for Iraqis to stand up for Iraq, bring the factions together, end the insurgency and run their own country. Our troops have done their job in Iraq, and they've done it valiantly. It's time to work with the new Iraqi government to bring our combat troops home by the end of this year," he said.
But one Republican lawmaker argued the reverse, saying that now is the time to send more U.S. troops into Iraq to capitalize on the momentum.
"There's no substitute for winning, no substitute — period. So why not spend the next two-and-a-half years focused like a laser beam on winning in Iraq, use the most recent election — formation of the government and now the kill of Zarqawi and ramp up our troops, swarm the Sunni provinces and really try to defeat this insurgency. If we can't do that, nothing else matters," Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama told FOX News.
The senator added that it will be up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Bush to build the appetite among Congress and the public to send in more U.S. troops.
"I hope the president and the secretary of defense are listening, because I think this suggestion is worth weighing, because if we were to do this, it would send a strong signal that, man, we're in it to win. We're not thinking about withdrawing. We're not thinking about in any way cutting and running," Shelby said.
About 130,000 U.S. troops have been on the ground in Iraq since the last drawdown this spring, following Iraqi elections last December. But within the last two weeks, 3,500 more combat troops have arrived in Baghdad as part of an intensified effort to wrest control of the provincial capital of Ramadi from insurgents.
In a report to Congress issued May 30, Pentagon officials wrote that the Multinational Force-Iraq, the top American military command, "expects that rejectionist strength will likely remain steady throughout 2006, but that their appeal and motivation for continued violent action will begin to wane in early 2007." The report provided no promises of U.S. troop reductions anytime soon.
Bush is headed to Camp David for the weekend, where he will be assessing events on the ground in Iraq. The president announced that he will meet with his national security team and other key members of his Cabinet on Monday as well as Gens. George Casey and John Abizaid, the top general in Iraq and head of U.S. Central Command, respectively, who will be speaking by teleconference from Iraq.
On Tuesday, the new Iraqi ambassador to Iraq and al-Maliki and his Cabinet will join a teleconference with Bush and his team.
On Monday, "our top diplomats and military commanders in Iraq will give me an assessment of recent changes in the political and economic and security situation on the ground," Bush said. On Tuesday, "we will discuss how to best deploy America's resources in Iraq and achieve our shared goal of an Iraq that can govern itself, defend itself and sustain itself."
Snow said the meeting at Camp David is not something that arose with the news that Zarqawi had been killed, but that it had been timed to coincide with the final forming of Iraq's cabinet.
Nobody expects a "snap change" with the death of Zarqawi, Snow said, but discussions will be held "of what lies ahead and how we can best support the Iraqi forces." He said a date for withdrawal does not exist.
"We need to understand it is still a war and there are still going to be tough days," Snow said.
As recently as last month, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a press conference in which Bush said any decisions will be made by commanders on the ground, and that installment of Iraqi interior and defense ministers was critical before any decisions are made.
Blair added that he thought it "is the duty of the whole international community" to confront the forces that are trying to destroy Iraq.
"I'm more than ever convinced that what is important for them in Iraq is to know that we will stand with them in defeating these forces of reaction," Blair said.
That's the opinion of several Republican lawmakers, who say recommitting to the effort is vital in ending the terror effort in Iraq.
"I think, as the president very appropriately said this morning, we've got a long way to go. It's long and it's hard and it's tough," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told FOX News. "We're going to have setbacks. There's going to be more sectarian violence. There's going to be more bad things that happen."
"If our military says if they need more people to exploit the opportunities that exist today, they'll have a receptive listener in me. But we will just see how it develops," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., adding that he thinks "the American people will support us in what they believe we have to have to be successful.
But, he added, "I think the general plan of not Americanizing this effort any more and shifting it to the Iraqis is a plan that I'd like to see us continue if we can."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said he is not convinced by those who say an upsurge in the number of American troops on the ground in Iraq will hasten the end of violence.
"Let's be careful about the politics of this moment. Who knows whether more troops would make the situation better. We need more Iraqis out front. We need more Iraqi police with the good new interior minister doing what they need to do. Let's not let politics kind of override this event," Coleman said.
"The decisions have to be made by the folks on the ground; [they] have to be made by the generals in the field," Coleman added.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, said Wednesday's military success was "not a matter of boots on the ground," but demonstrates a different facet of the war being fought by the coalition.
"This is a matter of very specific intelligence, a lot of it now coming from Iraqi sources. It's a matter of us utilizing the full breadth of American intelligence capability from our signals intelligence to geospatial to humint, so-called humint, or human intelligence. This is a very select, very specialized part of our defense apparatus," Hunter told FOX News.
"If you send in another Marine division, that doesn't necessarily make us more effective. It is specialized, it's precision and it carves them out of these little enclaves in the civilian population, hopefully without collateral damage," he said.
That argument gives credence to some who appear never to have been convinced that the number of U.S. troops makes a difference on the level of violence in Iraq, or others who suggest location is not critical to the fight. Those lawmakers have echoed the demand by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., that U.S. forces should be removed from the battlefield immediately to be redeployed for targeted missions from the region.
"Al-Zarqawi brought Al Qaeda to Iraq and it is estimated that he is responsible for 10 percent of the most brutal terrorist attacks," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "I support this type of targeted mission for our troops, which can be achieved from the region while Iraqi security forces provide for the day-to-day security of their own people."
Zarqawi developed ties to mujahedeen while fighting alongside them during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Intelligence officials believe he had cells or links to Muslim extremists in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Kuwait.
U.S. authorities are expecting a new leader to take his place soon, and Caldwell suggested it could be Egyptian national Abu al-Masri, a chief deputy of Zarqawi's.
"If you had to pick somebody, [al-Masri] would be the person that is going to try to occupy the position that Zarqawi had. He's the most logical one out there, as you look at that structure and how they operate that will probably try to move into there. And that's something that the coalition forces, along with the Iraqi government, have been already talking about and anticipating could possibly occur," Caldwell said.
Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., congratulated the special forces who managed to get Zarqawi but warned about the implications of another terrorist already ready to take the helm in Zarqawi's place.
"I have found if you liken it to the drug lords, for example, as soon as you imprison one, kill one, another takes his place. I suspect that it will be a motivating tool for a little while so we're on an even higher alert," he told FOX News.