A temporary boost for Bush, at best

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"We were all sort of like, 'Well, yeah!' ... People were going, 'Whew! Good one, Ray,'" Snow said.

It was a light moment, but one that some strategists called emblematic of the desperation that lawmakers are feeling for some trace of progress in Iraq. Republicans are hoping that al-Zarqawi's death and the cementing of Iraq's new government will allay the concerns of their restive constituents in time to avert a rout for their party in the elections.

"It's good news, and frankly, with all of the news that we've had out of Iraq for some time, good news has certainly been welcome," said Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the majority leader.

Dubbing al-Zarqawi's death "taking the head off the snake," Boehner said success in Iraq would benefit both parties.

"Anything that helps us win, that brings good news, will certainly help, frankly, all members - both sides of the aisle - as they run for re-election," he said.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore Democrat, said al-Zarqawi's death would give Bush a badly needed chance to turn public opinion on the war.

The assassination was "extremely important," Ruppersberger said, but "it would be very dangerous to think [that] because we take out Zarqawi, the insurgency is going to stop."

Ruppersberger returned this week from his fourth trip to Iraq and was at the White House meeting Wednesday with LaHood and other lawmakers. He said he pressed Bush to pull U.S. troops back to the perimeters of key cities in Iraq to serve in support roles while allowing Iraqi forces to handle security.

"The American people have an issue with this war - it's a 'same old, same old' situation, and we have to show that we have a new plan," Ruppersberger said.

"This is an opportune time for the president to say to the American people that we're not doing the same thing over and over, and having our men and women blown up by insurgents."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said Bush and congressional Republicans might get "a few ticks up" in the polls but that al-Zarqawi's death was not enough to reverse the party's slide.

"Iraq is a daily occurrence, and because it's a daily occurrence, it has a daily impact," said Hoyer, who has also just returned from Iraq. It would take "a whole series" of positive developments to turn around public opinion about the war, he said.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Gwyneth K. Shaw contributed to this article.

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