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Bush hails killing of al-Qaida leader in Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush and his military chiefs said Thursday that killing terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi struck a severe blow to al-Qaida and opens a new opportunity for the fledging democracy in Iraq.

“This violent man will never murder again,” Bush said in the Rose Garden as he announced the U.S. airstrike on the militant whom Osama bin Laden had dubbed the “emir,” or prince, of al-Qaida in Iraq.

It was an encouraging sign in the war, but the White House was careful not to predict it will hasten the withdrawal of the more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

“The death of Zarqawi does not change overnight the situation,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “Nobody expects a snap change.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said al-Zarqawi’s death “will not mean the end of all violence in that country.”

Rumsfeld said it was apt that al-Zarqawi, who had tried to thwart Iraqi elections and formation of a new government, died on the very day that the new government in Baghdad finalized its cabinet.

Bush discussed the killing by phone Thursday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and 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.

The war has not seen the downfall of such an iconic figure since late 2003 when former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was captured in an underground bunker. A U.S. counterterrorism official predicted little disruption to al-Qaida activities, because of the decentralized nature of that terror group, but also said the charismatic al-Zarqawi will 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 organization 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 U.S. defense intelligence official warned that there could be retaliatory attacks in the United States or elsewhere. Both officials requested anonymity because events were still unfolding.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill were encouraged.

“The entire world of people who believe in freedom and peace can take solace in what happened,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“I am more optimistic then ever that a free and stable Iraq can be achieved,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared, “Americans are safer today.”

Bush will meet Monday at Camp David with members of his national security team and Cabinet to discuss the next steps in Iraq. On Tuesday, Iraq’s new ambassador to the United States will join the group for a teleconference discussion with the prime minister and members of the Iraqi cabinet.

Bush learned of the killing 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, Snow said.

n the Rose Garden early Thursday, Bush read from prepared notes, shifting his weight from foot to foot. Hadley and Cheney, standing under a tree, watched him deliver uplifting news for a White House that has been weighed down by waning public confidence in his handling of the war.

Bush hailed defeat of Zarqawi as “an opportunity for Iraq’s new government to turn the tide of this struggle.” But he also cautioned that more terrorist and insurgent violence is to be expected.

“We have tough days ahead of us in Iraq that will require the continued patience of the American people,” he said.

In AP-Ipsos polling this week, 59 percent said the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq, a new high. And only 44 percent said it is likely that a stable, democratic government will be established in Iraq, the lowest number since the war began.

Rumsfeld referred to al-Zarqawi’s record of bombings, beheadings and large-scale slaughter.

“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.

Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, 39, developed ties to mujahedeen, or holy warriors, while fighting alongside them during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Intelligence officials believe al-Zarqawi had developed cells or links to Muslim extremists worldwide, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Kuwait.

FBI and other government officials did not believe al-Zarqawi had operatives within the U.S. under his command, but they had said it’s likely that he had ties to some U.S.-based militants or sympathizers from his years of work in the extremist community.

U.S. officials have said bin Laden contacted al-Zarqawi last year to enlist him in attacks outside Iraq. Al-Zarqawi’s group claimed responsibility for the Jordan hotel bombings in November, which drew fierce condemnation.

The U.S. government has misunderstood al-Zarqawi at times.

Before the April 2003 collapse of Saddam’s government, the Bush administration cited his presence in Iraq among its evidence of contacts between al-Qaida and the former regime _ and part of its justification for the Iraq war. While al-Zarqawi is believed to have been in Iraq, later assessments found he was not operating as part of al-Qaida then.

But by October 2004, al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to bin Laden.