Sometimes even presidents have to wait for the news. George W. Bush was meeting with aides in the Oval Office last Wednesday when he turned to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley for an update on Iraq. "Do you have news for me?" Bush asked. Hadley did. "Sir, I'd like to talk to you alone," Hadley said, clearing the room of other aides. When one of them returned, Bush let the aide in on the secret: "I think we got Zarqawi."
If he sounded a little stunned, it wasn't surprising. The Commander in Chief hasn't had much practice in positive developments in the past nine months. And so, as White House speechwriters went to work on the remarks the President would deliver from the Rose Garden during breakfast news shows, they tried to strike a tone of "tempered optimism," according to an aide who worked on the speech. When Bush appeared before the cameras, he sounded muted, speaking of his hope that the death of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi would allow Iraq's infant government to "turn the tide" of a war that could still mar Bush's presidency. "Zarqawi is dead," Bush said, "but the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues."
It has been 39 months since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and after so many turned corners that have led to dead ends, Bush wisely shunned any predictions about how much good would come from al-Zarqawi's elimination. But the sense of elation in the U.S. command was impossible to contain. With his penchant for videotaped beheadings, spectacular suicide mass killings and Houdini-style escapes from U.S. pursuers, the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi had become the face of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, complete with a $25 million bounty on his head. Bush had all but branded him Hitler, referring to him more than 100 times in speeches as wanting to "sow as much havoc as possible" and "destroy American life." After two 500-lb. bombs pulverized his hideout north of Baghdad last Wednesday evening (10:12 a.m. in Washington), the terrorist managed to hold on briefly, mumbling and struggling as he died in the ruins on a stretcher brought by soldiers. His death was a desperately needed break for the White House and the U.S. military. But is it a turning point or just a temporary reprieve from Iraq's seemingly interminable bloodletting? "No one knows," says a Bush aide. "But it's a good problem to have."