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Bush Closely Followed Zarqawi Chase

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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.

MIKE SHUSTER, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.
David Greene
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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