The killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi opened an opportunity yesterday for the White House to show that its military mission can still prevail in Iraq, and administration officials moved quickly to try to seize the diplomatic and political initiative.
In an early-morning appearance in the Rose Garden to hail Zarqawi's death, President Bush announced that he was summoning his top advisers to an unusual meeting at Camp David on Monday and Tuesday to chart a way forward in Iraq, with the focus on how to deploy American resources to bolster the fledgling government. Troop reductions are not on the agenda, the White House press secretary said.
Administration officials said a range of issues will be on the table, including developing a new security plan for violence-ridden Baghdad, spurring reconciliation between warring Sunni and Shiite populations -- perhaps with some kind of amnesty plan for insurgents -- and the possibility of new international economic assistance for Iraq.
White House officials were clearly elated by the good news from Iraq, which also included the announcement from Baghdad that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had filled critical security posts in the new government. With support for Bush on Iraq at a low ebb, and much of the news in recent weeks dominated by grim reports of sectarian violence and deaths, the day's developments seemed to present a chance to change the story line, bolster public support at home and have a strong launch for the new government.
'Sink or swim'
The Iraq enterprise is now largely in the hands of that country's untested political leaders, and administration officials believe that a successful start -- after six months of bickering and rising violence after the December elections -- is their last reasonable chance to steady Iraq for the foreseeable future.
"There's going to be a window of opportunity for this new government to sink or swim," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. "They are going to have to demonstrate to the Iraqis and the rest of the world that they are competent leaders who can meet the needs of the Iraqi people."
While Bartlett offered no specific window, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has put the time frame at six months. In an interview this week with Der Spiegel, a German magazine, Khalilzad said, "The next six months will be critical in terms of reining in the danger of civil war. If the government fails to achieve this, it will have lost its opportunity."
Past opportunities to change the story in Iraq, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, have proved fleeting. Support for Bush on Iraq bumped up after that news, but it quickly receded -- and administration officials were careful yesterday to gird the public for more setbacks, even without Zarqawi in Iraq. "We can expect the terrorists and insurgents to carry on without him," Bush said at the Rose Garden. "We can expect the sectarian violence to continue."
On Capitol Hill, rhetoric was less restrained. "The military has chopped off the head of the snake, and I think we're all going to be much safer as a result," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
Boehner also told reporters that the House will consider some kind of resolution next week supporting the mission in Iraq, setting up a vote aimed at embarrassing antiwar Democrats. The Senate could also take up a defense spending bill, and Democrats may look to that as a vehicle to criticize the administration.
Both parties express satisfaction
Politics aside, lawmakers in both parties expressed satisfaction with the turn of events. "I think any day the headline is anything but another car bombing is a good day," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "Taking out the second-best-known terrorist killer in the world and getting the Ministries of Defense and Interior settled, thereby completing the government, is a good day. Even the most bitter critics of the war have to concede that these are important developments."
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the killing of Zarqawi is "not a turning point, but the administration could take advantage of it."
Biden said the administration needs to use the opportunity created by Zarqawi's death and the completion of the government to take three steps: push Maliki to put together a plan to purge the ministries of sectarian militias; insist that Iraq take advantage of a 120-day window available to amend the constitution; and go back to the international community and obtain financial and diplomatic support for Iraq.
If the administration does not take such steps, Biden said, the killing of Zarqawi could be "as transitory as the capture of Saddam Hussein."
Administration officials said the Camp David meeting will be about how the administration can help the Iraqis move quickly. In a planned videoconference with Iraqi leaders, Bush and his Cabinet members will emphasize that the Iraqis need to come up with ideas for running their country and that the U.S. government is ready to support the implementation of those plans, according to one senior official who requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations. The key issues, this source said, are reconciliation of religious and ethnic groups, economic reform and international support.
The administration is not pressing the new government to adopt a particular solution, such as amending the constitution to accommodate Sunni grievances, but it wants the Iraqi leaders to make decisions, the official said. "We are pushing everyone to come up with solutions," the official said. "The last thing we can do is dictate a solution."
International aid compact mulled
The administration is exploring the idea of an international aid compact, much like Afghanistan has. The compact, established with the United Nations and international donors, set a five-year plan to build security, rule of law, and economic and social development in the war-torn country in order to attract pledges of international support.
Iraq has secured $14 billion in pledges since 2003 but has had trouble collecting the money, with about $3.5 billion provided thus far, the official said. The administration is especially targeting Arab states in the Persian Gulf area, flush with oil revenue, to forgive Iraqi debts and make good on previous pledges.
The Camp David meeting will include such officials as the secretaries of agriculture and energy and their Iraqi counterparts, looking at what technical expertise the administration can offer on problems such as pipeline security and electricity, long a sore point for Iraqis. "It's really bringing all elements of national power to bear to make this transition successful," Bartlett said.
White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley was told by Khalilzad at about 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday that Zarqawi may have been killed, according to White House press secretary Tony Snow. A little after 9 p.m., Snow added, the White House was told that tattoos, scars and fingerprints on the body matched those of Zarqawi.
But the White House held back on announcing the news, preferring that Maliki make the announcement in Baghdad yesterday morning.
Eliot A. Cohen, an expert on military strategy at Johns Hopkins University who has close ties to some officials in the administration, said the significance of Zarqawi's demise may be greatest for White House officials who have been emotionally drained by the Iraq ordeal.
"This is probably as important for their morale as anything else," Cohen said. "I think where this really counts is it makes them feel a lot better. The news has not been so good from Iraq. Now, the danger is that they will fool themselves into thinking this is a bigger deal than it is."
Jeremy Rosner, a former Clinton administration official who is an authority on public opinion and foreign policy, said the Zarqawi strike has helped Bush, but only to a point, given the unpopularity of the war.
"He's at the edge of public tolerance and probably congressional tolerance," Rosner said. "He's still got room to operate -- he's not at the point where his hands are tied. This gives him a stronger data point to argue to stay the course."