A temporary boost for Bush, at best

President unusually subdued in reaction to al-Zarqawi death

June 09, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a rare and badly needed burst of good news for President Bush, whose popularity has been battered by the war's steady drone of violence and setbacks.

But Bush's uncharacteristically subdued comments on the al-Qaida leader's death - just as the Iraqi prime minister filled key security posts in his new government - reflected a recognition at the White House that the successes could be a fleeting boost amid continuing violence and disorder.

With anxiety about the war at record highs and pressure building for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, strategists and opinion analysts said Bush has a limited ability to take advantage of successes in Iraq.

"This will provide certainly a temporary, very much welcomed bit of good news, but whether it will translate into an enduring increase in support for the mission and willingness to keep troops there for a longer period of time will turn on whether the situation on the ground, in terms of violence and casualties, improves," said Andrew Kohut, a public opinion analyst at the independent Pew Research Center.

Bush, who made headlines last month by calling his own "tough talk" about terrorism a mistake, delivered news of al-Zarqawi's killing with none of his customary bravado. He waited until after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki held a news conference in Baghdad announcing the strike. Appearing in the White House Rose Garden, Bush's expression was stern and his tone somber.

"Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again," Bush said during the early morning appearance, later adding that "the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues."

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

But Bush said al-Zarqawi's death and the naming of key Iraqi officials should give people "renewed confidence in the final outcome of this struggle: the defeat of terrorism threats, and a more peaceful world for our children and grandchildren."

He announced a two-day summit next week at Camp David where he will join his top national security advisers and outside analysts, as well as holding teleconferences with Iraqi leaders, to discuss what Bush called "the way forward in Iraq."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking from Brussels where he was attending a NATO summit, called al-Zarqawi's death "enormously important," and said it "makes life more difficult" for his terrorist network.

Rumsfeld added that it "will not mean the end of all violence in that country. And one ought not to take it as such. But let there be no doubt: The fact that he is dead is a significant victory in the battle against terrorism in that country and, I would say, worldwide."

The statements from the White House and top officials demonstrated a recognition - after several developments in Iraq that were hailed as turning points but gave way to more bloodshed - that the public's patience for such rhetoric is wearing thin, strategists said.

"What has happened so often with Iraq is one step forward, two steps back," said Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. "Killing Zarqawi is a good first step, but it's a long-term thing over several months, not an immediate one, and more steps have to happen."

Bush has seen "temporary spikes on these types of things," Fabrizio said, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, which created a short-lived burst of support for the president. But they have virtually been wiped away by increases in violence.

At the White House, officials were quick to tamp down the notion that Bush might be enjoying a triumphant moment along the lines of his now-infamous 2003 appearance on an aircraft carrier after the fall of Baghdad, when he wore a military flight suit and delivered a speech before a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

"That would be a good thing," Bush said when he learned late Wednesday afternoon of the possibility of al-Zarqawi's death, according to White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Snow discouraged comparisons to past developments in Iraq that Bush has celebrated - "It is a day where a lot of people can say, `OK, we killed a very bad man,'" he said - and calibrated his language carefully to avoid any hint of jubilation by the president.

"Does this mean that happy days are here again? Of course not," Snow said.

The positive developments in Iraq came as polls are showing the American public more disheartened than ever about the U.S. mission and as unhappy as they have ever been with Bush. Congressional Republicans are deeply concerned that the disaffection will cost their party seats in the November elections.

Right around the time that U.S. troops dropped the 500-pound bombs that killed al-Zarqawi, Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican just back from Iraq, was at a White House meeting with Bush, musing aloud about how much better things would be if somebody nabbed the al-Qaida leader, Snow said.

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