U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has welcomed the death of terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.
Secretary Rumsfeld says Zarqawi's death is significant because he was not only in charge of the al-Qaida terrorist network in Iraq, but he was also the organization's number three leader worldwide.
"I think 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," he said.
Rumsfeld says Zarqawi's death will hurt al-Qaida, but he expects new leadership to emerge, and attacks in Iraq to continue.
"The death of Zarqawi, while enormously important, will not mean the end of all violence in that country, and one ought not to take it as such," he said. "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."
Rumsfeld says Zarqawi was a key proponent of what he calls a "dark, sadistic, medieval vision" that has been rejected by a majority of Iraqis, and Muslims around the world.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq was killed in an airstrike by U.S. warplanes just north of Baghdad Wednesday evening, while he was meeting with several of his senior advisers. Iraqi and U.S. forces who went to the scene afterward were able to recognize Zarqawi's body, and confirmed his identity through fingerprints.
A statement by the U.S. military says the information that led to the attack on Zarqawi came from some of his senior associates. The coalition commander in Iraq, General George Casey, says the final push to find and kill the al-Qaida in Iraq leader took about two weeks. Rumsfeld says commanders in Iraq decided to get Zarqawi with an airstrike, fearing he might find out about a ground assault and escape.
Still, General Casey says al-Qaida remains a threat, and the effort to hunt down its members will continue until "terrorism is eradicated in Iraq."
Also on Thursday, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke about the nomination of Iraq's new ministers of defense and interior, the two key security posts in the government. U.S. officials had acknowledged that the delay in filling those two posts was hurting efforts to give more responsibility to Iraq's new security forces.
"The reason they've taken a long time is, to the great credit of the prime minister, Mr. Maliki, he made a decision that those posts would not be part of the spoils system of the electoral process, but instead that they would be individuals who would be highly competent, who would govern from the center, who would manage those critically important departments in a way that left no doubt in the minds of the Iraqi people that they were being run in a fair and non-sectarian manner," he noted.
Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have spoken about both the importance of selecting the Iraqi defense and interior ministers quickly, and also of the need for them to be competent and independent of any one faction.