WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday hailed the killing of al-Qaida leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by military forces and said his death is a "severe blow" to the al-Qaida network.
"U.S. forces delivered justice to the most wanted terrorist in Iraq," the president said in the Rose Garden.
"Now Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again."
Americans "can be justly proud" of U.S. fighting men and women, the president said.
Zarqawi, blamed for the beheading of foreign captives and the death of hundreds in suicide bombings, was killed in a raid north of Baghdad , Iraq’s prime minister said earlier.
Bush alerted Wednesday
Bush learned of the killing Wednesday afternoon from national security adviser Stephen Hadley, who had received a phone call from Baghdad shortly before 4 p.m. ET.
"That would be a good thing," White House press secretary Tony Snow quoted Bush as saying at the time.
In his statement Thursday morning, Bush said the terrorist's death means "the ideology of terror has lost one of its most visible and aggressive leaders." But he cautioned that the war on terror lives on.
"Zarqawi is dead, but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues," Bush said. "We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him. We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has been under consistent fire from critics for his handling of the war in Iraq, suggested it was appropriate that al-Zarqawi died on the day that Iraqi officials announced their new defense and interior ministers.
“But,” he added, “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, because he had interests outside of Iraq. He was an integral part of the war on terror.”
Speaking at a news conference at a meeting of NATO defense ministers, Rumsfeld said that al-Zarqawi’s death will hurt the terrorist network, particularly since others with him were also killed.
“It will slow them down,” he said.
News that al-Zarqawi was killed comes at a time of trouble in Bush’s presidency. It is uplifting news for the president whose popularity has been weighed down by waning public confidence in his handling of the war in Iraq.
Only 40 percent of the public approves of Bush’s performance on foreign policy and the war on terror, and just 35 percent of the public approves of Bush's handling of Iraq, according to the most recent AP-Ipsos polling.
Sigh of relief
Al-Zarqawi's death allowed U.S. counterterrorism officials an initial sigh of relief at what they hailed as a significant development, but they quickly cautioned against expecting it to end terror operations or violence in Iraq.
U.S. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters there the development would not end the insurgency and an official in Washington, who requested anonymity while details of al-Zarqawi’s death were still unfolding, said it should not cause anyone to have unrealistic expectations.
The impact of Zarqawi’s death is nonetheless symbolic: The U.S. has not seen the elimination of such an iconic figure since former President Saddam Hussein was found in an underground bunker in late 2003.
“Arguably over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi,” Rumsfeld said. “He personified the dark sadistic and medieval vision of the future — of beheadings, suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings.”
Al-Zarqawi was considered the most dangerous terror plotter and foreign fighter in Iraq, coordinating a loose coalition of militants numbering at least in the hundreds. Osama bin Laden called him the “emir,” or prince, of al-Qaida in Iraq.
The U.S. government was offering up to $25 million for information leading to al-Zarqawi’s killing or capture, putting him on par with Hussein, bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
'Lead to strains and disagreements'
During a speech in April, Gen. Michael Hayden, the newly appointed CIA director who was then serving as the No. 2 U.S. intelligence official, said the war in Iraq motivates jihadists, but their failure there would weaken the movement globally.
“The loss of key leaders like bin Laden, Zawahri and Zarqawi — especially if they were lost in rapid succession — could cause the jihadist movement to fracture even more into smaller groups, and would probably lead to strains and disagreements,” Hayden said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has taken responsibility for numerous mortar attacks, suicide bombings, beheadings and other violence against U.S. and Iraqi targets. Scores, including many ordinary Iraqis, have died.
Yet even into 2004, al-Zarqawi was considered a shadowy figure whose followers were known simply as “the Zarqawi network.” He operated under the names of various jihadist groups, and began emulating bin Laden with recordings fraught with anti-Western rhetoric and calls to arms.
U.S. intelligence veterans have said he craved attention and saw an expanded role for himself in the al-Qaida organization.
But the U.S. government has misunderstood him at times.
The Bush administration cited al-Zarqawi’s presence in Iraq before the April 2003 collapse of Saddam’s government among its evidence of contacts between al-Qaida and the former regime — and part of its justification for the Iraq war.
Allegiance to bin Laden
While al-Zarqawi is believed to have been in Iraq, he was not operating as part of al-Qaida then. The July 2004 report from the Sept. 11 Commission found no evidence of a collaborative relationship between Saddam and bin Laden’s terror organization before the invasion.
But by October 2004, al-Zarqawi pledged his allegiance to bin Laden.
Al-Zarqawi was also known for a time as the “one-legged terrorist,” because U.S. authorities believed was fitted for an artificial leg in Baghdad in 2002. The assessment was later revised.
Over time, a more vivid picture of al-Zarqawi emerged.
Born in Jordan in 1966, al-Zarqawi 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 has cells or links to Muslim extremists worldwide, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan and Kuwait.
In the United States, FBI and other government officials did not believe al-Zarqawi had operatives 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 deadly bombings at three hotels in Jordan in November, including a wedding, which drew fierce condemnation.
At a rally, hundreds of angry Jordanians shouted “Burn in hell, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi!” after the terrorist’s group claimed responsibility for the blasts.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.