Pentagon Response: Bracing for a Violent Reaction

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This morning, Pentagon halls are buzzing with the reverberations of the killing of terrorist leader Abu Mousab Al Zarqawi last night in an airstrike in Iraq. There is a huge—if brief—sense of relief about finally taking out the symbolic and logistical heart of the Iraqi insurgency. In part, that is because the small, covert, 12-man teams of U.S. special forces have been chasing Zarqawi for years. "Every time I heard somebody complain we hadn't got Zarqawi yet, I had to grit my teeth," said a Pentagon official, "because I knew we had multiple teams out every single night for years, building intelligence networks, risking their lives, and several times coming close."

Though details are still emerging, it appears Zarqawi was killed when two Air Force F-16s from Balad Air Base in Iraq were directed to the house where Zarqawi was and dropped precision weapons. At a briefing this morning from Iraq, a senior U.S. officer displayed a large picture of the face of Zarqawi's corpse, part of a high-profile p.r. effort to show that the al-Qaeda military leader, who just weeks ago relased his own video of himself shooting an automatic weapon, was indisputably dead. President George Bush jumped on the rare, high-profile military success and has called a meeting of top commanders and his national security team early next week.

Pentagon planners had little chance to reflect on their success before turning to the next challenge. From the park benches in the Pentagon courtyard to the secure conference rooms, military officials are already talking through their preparations for an outbreak of insurgent violence in reaction to the news. Attacks in Iraq have already reached an all-time high of 700 per week, according to a State Department source, and officers are bracing for the scores of terrorist and criminal cells spread across Iraq to react to news of Zarqawi's killing. For the special forces troops, they are already moving on to the next target. In an exclusive interview with TIME recently, Lt. General Dell Dailey talked about how U.S. forces had tracked a terrorist from the Achille Lauro ship hijacking in 1980 to Iraq two years ago and captured him there. "We have both a short war and a long war. This is a long-term proposition. As one of my guys said to me the other day, 'Don't worry, we'll get them one day.'" Yesterday was one of those days.