Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase According to the White House, President Bush closely followed the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The president was initially told Wednesday afternoon that U.S. forces may have killed the terrorist. Officials confirmed Zarqawi's death for the president Wednesday evening.
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Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase

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Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase

Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase

Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase

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According to the White House, President Bush closely followed the hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The president was initially told Wednesday afternoon that U.S. forces may have killed the terrorist. Officials confirmed Zarqawi's death for the president Wednesday evening.


To review the big news: this morning, U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad said al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in an air raid along with seven of his aides. His body was identified by its fingerprints, as well as facial recognition technology.

Zarqawi is believed to be the mastermind behind insurgent violence in the region that has claimed many lives. The Associated Press reports that Zarqawi's eldest brother in Jordan says the family had anticipated his death. One man in Baghdad said, quote, "all the Iraqis are happy." Another wondered if Zarqawi's death would prompt his followers to gain revenge with more violence.

NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Mike Shuster joins me in the studio, and on the line is White House correspondent David Greene.


That's right, Renee. President Bush is expected to make a statement at the White House in the Rose Garden within the hour, so we've got NPR's White House correspondent, David Greene, with us now. Good morning David.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Good morning.

SHUSTER: When did the president learn about Zarqawi's death?

GREENE: Well, it was yesterday afternoon. The president had just gotten back from a trip out West to talk about immigration, and he was in a meeting with congressional leaders, and it was around 4:30 p.m. or so. He was wrapping up the meeting in the Oval Office, and his national security advisor, Steve Hadley - and the vice president was there as well, and the secretary of state, and the president's chief of staff.

Hadley informed the president that they thought that they had gotten Zarqawi. And, according to the White House, the president said something to the effect of that would be a good day if it were true. But it was about five hours later, yesterday evening around 9:20 p.m., we're told, that Hadley gave the president a call and said that, based on body marks and fingerprints that, yes indeed, it was him.

SHUSTER: So, they were waiting to announce the news to confirm that it actually was Zarqawi?

GREENE: They were, but it's worth noting that the president knew that Special Forces were going after him pretty aggressively in recent days. And, in fact, during this meeting with congressional leaders, the president - not knowing yet that they thought they had nailed Zarqawi, but knowing that they were close - made some comments and said, you know, we're close to getting him.

And we're told that Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who was in the room, even brought up - before it was a topic of conversation - said you know what you guys really need to do is get Zarqawi. And the president, at that point, knew that they were close and then found out, but not until 9:20, as you said, that it was confirmed.

SHUSTER: How is the White House interpreting this development for the war on terror? Are they thinking that this is going to give President Bush a political boost?

GREENE: Well, they're being careful. I think they know from even some past experiences that coming out too soon and declaring victory can be politically risky. At the same time, as one White House official put it, this is important both operationally and symbolically.

And if you talk about the symbolism, this is not Saddam Hussein, it's not Osama bin Laden, but they're hoping that it's seen as something very close to that in the eyes of the American people.

Operationally, as one White House official put it this morning, they hope that this will send a message to insurgents and terrorists in Iraq that no one can hide from the United States.

Now, as you know, there have been some questions about what Zarqawi really means to the insurgency and to Iraqi-born insurgents. So time will tell, operationally. But they're hoping for symbolism in the president. That's why we're going to see him go out and talk about this this morning.

SHUSTER: David, is it unusual for President Bush to be as closely informed - almost on an hour-by-hour basis - about an operation like the one that was mounted to get Zarqawi?

GREENE: I would say likely. I mean, this is a guy who the president has been talking about in speech after speech. His interest in Zarqawi was well-known, so for the president's national security advisor, for the secretary of state, for the military, to keep him abreast because they knew that they would view this killing - if it happened - as pretty significant. I don't think it's too unusual.

But, that said, the president does like to stay away from the details, and as he often talks about, let the operational decisions to the military.

SHUSTER: You know, I wonder how much the White House is going to trumpet this. The White House did do that when Saddam Hussein was captured, and it didn't make that much difference to the insurgency. Is there a feeling of confidence there that this event will?

GREENE: I think there is a feeling of confidence. Again, it's early, but one thing that the president has always argued, and a lot of his critics have always questioned, is the connection between Iraq and what the president calls the war on terrorism. And I think their hope is that to have a name and a face like Zarqawi out there as being killed by the U.S. military will be important symbolically - as they said their hope is - and drive home the president's message, that there is a connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism.

For a long time, fighting terrorism was really the president's biggest strength. Politically, he suffered a lot from that over recent months, and I think they're hoping that they can capitalize on this. But again, I think you're going to see them be cautious. And already, people at the White House are saying this morning, you know, there's still tough fighting ahead. And they're aware of that.

SHUSTER: You know, this is bound to raise questions about the president's polls, and polls have been showing for quite some time that a majority of Americans don't approve of the president's handling of the war in Iraq. Do you think this is going to change that?

GREENE: You know, it's not clear. We've often talked about over here that the big unknown - as the president's poll numbers have gone down -is if someone like bin Laden or like Zarqawi were caught, and that the reaction from the American people might be unpredictable.

The war, obviously, has really taken its toll on the president's political standing. Even many Republicans, many conservatives have started to abandon him. And the president's closest political advisor, Karl Rove, said recently that even his poor poll numbers in other areas can be tied to developments in Iraq. So, unpredictable at this point, but I'm sure they're hoping that this will send a message that the U.S. military has been successful in fighting this.

SHUSTER: And in the few seconds we have left, David, the president's going to make a statement shortly. He apologized recently for some of his intemperate language earlier during the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Do you think that the tone might be different this time?

GREENE: That's a very important point. I doubt we're going to be hearing much cowboy talk from him after the apology recently, and after saying that that talk in the past got him in trouble.

SHUSTER: David, thank you very much. NPR's David Greene at the White House.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News with NPR Diplomatic Correspondent Mike Shuster, here in the studio with us this morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

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Text of Bush Remarks on Zarqawi

Associated Press — Text of President Bush's statement in the Rose Garden on Thursday on the death of al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as transcribed by the White House:

Good morning. Last night in Iraq, United States military forces killed the terrorist al-Zarqawi. At 6:15 p.m. Baghdad time, special operation forces, acting on tips and intelligence from Iraqis, confirmed Zarqawi's location, and delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq.

Zarqawi was the operational commander of the terrorist movement in Iraq. He led a campaign of car bombings, assassinations and suicide attacks that has taken the lives of many American forces and thousands of innocent Iraqis. Osama bin Laden called this Jordanian terrorist "the prince of al-Qaida in Iraq." He called on the terrorists around the world to listen to him and obey him.

Zarqawi personally beheaded American hostages and other civilians in Iraq. He masterminded the destruction of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. He was responsible for the assassination of an American diplomat in Jordan, and the bombing of a hotel in Amman.

Through his every action, he sought to defeat America and our coalition partners, and turn Iraq into a safe haven from which al-Qaida could wage its war on free nations. To achieve these ends, he worked to divide Iraqis and incite civil war. And only last week he released an audio tape attacking Iraq's elected leaders, and denouncing those advocating the end of sectarianism.

Now Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again. Iraqis can be justly proud of their new government and its early steps to improve their security. And Americans can be enormously proud of the men and women of our armed forces, who worked tirelessly with their Iraqi counterparts to track down this brutal terrorist and put him out of business.

The operation against Zarqawi was conducted with courage and professionalism by the finest military in the world. Coalition and Iraqi forces persevered through years of near misses and false leads, and they never gave up. Last night their persistence and determination were rewarded. On behalf of all Americans, I congratulate our troops on this remarkable achievement.

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. Yet the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders.

Zarqawi's death is a severe blow to al-Qaida. 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. A few minutes ago I spoke to Prime Minister Maliki. I congratulated him on close collaboration between coalition and Iraqi forces that helped make this day possible. Iraq's freely elected Prime Minister is determined to defeat our common enemies and bring security and the rule of law to all its people.

Earlier this morning he announced the completion of his Cabinet appointments, with the naming of a new minister of defense, a new minister of the interior, and a new minister of state for national security. These new ministers are part of a democratic government that represents all Iraqis. They will play a vital role as the Iraqi government addresses its top priorities — reconciliation and reconstruction and putting an end to the kidnappings and beheadings and suicide bombings that plague the Iraqi people. I assured Prime Minister Maliki that he will have the full support of the United States of America.

On Monday I will meet with my national security team and other key members of my Cabinet at Camp David to discuss the way forward in Iraq. 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. On Tuesday, Iraq's new ambassador to the United States will join us, and we will have a teleconference discussion with the prime minister and members of his cabinet. Together 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.

We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people. Yet the developments of the last 24 hours give us renewed confidence in the final outcome of this struggle: the defeat of terrorism threats, and a more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren.

May God bless the Iraqi people and may God continue to bless America.