Bush Looks to New Start in Iraq

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President Bush appeared to be focusing on the future of Iraq during comments at the White House on the death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi's death came on the same day that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made three key government security appointments. The White House hopes the two events will set the stage for a move toward stability in Iraq.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, with Steve Inskeep. And here, President Bush at the White House.

(Soundbite of presidential press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Last night in Iraq, the United States military forces killed the terrorist al-Zarqawi.

MONTAGNE: With those words, President Bush announced this morning the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, and one of the most wanted men in the world.

(Soundbite of President Bush speaking)

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

MONTAGNE: President Bush, speaking earlier today at the Rose Garden. In a moment, we'll hear from Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. First, we turn to NPR's White House Correspondent, Don Gonyea. Good morning.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Hey, good morning.

MONTAGNE: What did you make of the president's remarks this morning?

GONYEA: Well, it was a very sober statement that he made from the Rose Garden. There was no real bravado contained in his six-minute speech to reporters who had gathered there. This was not - it didn't have any of the trappings of a rally.

So what he wanted to do was to really highlight how important this is, remind Americans what a bad guy Zarqawi was, and how glad they are they got him. But he was also continuing to ask for patience; that it's still going to be difficult. Insurgents and terrorists in Iraq will still continue with suicide bombings and the like.

So it's kind of a balance he was trying to strike with that statement.

MONTAGNE: You know, it's interesting that the White House knew about this raid late yesterday, but the news of Zarqawi's death came out of Baghdad, was announced there in Baghdad.

GONYEA: And part of what the president said this morning was praising the Iraqi government for - the Iraqi prime minister for naming a new defense minister and a new interior minister. What is going here clearly is the White House letting the Iraqis, probably even encouraging the Iraqis, to take the lead on this.

The president found out about it at about 9:10 p.m. last night. He got confirmation that it was Zarqawi. But we heard from Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad this morning that Zarqawi had been killed; eliminated was what he said.

So, absolutely, it's the White House wanting to demonstrate that there is a functioning, legitimate Iraqi government and that this was their announcement to make, even though the raid was carried out by American forces.

MONTAGNE: And the administration then today can herald two key developments in Iraq, the death of Zarqawi and the completion of a new Iraqi government now that the prime minister has finally filled the critical interior and defense posts.

Going forward, what do you think these developments will affect the president's policy in Iraq?

GONYEA: I don't think they're going to change the policy at all. I mean the president has said over and over and over in speeches not just over the last several months as his poll numbers have declined - in terms of his overall public approval and his handling of the war - that as Iraqis stand up, the U.S. troops will stand down.

But there is some symbolism here and there is the sense that this will provide a morale boost for U.S. troops, for Iraqis as well. But it is an expectations game they're playing. They want to herald this good news, but not get Americans thinking that this is really huge.

MONTAGNE: NPR's White House correspondent, Don Gonyea. Thanks much.

Mike.

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