(Reuters) – President Barack Obama, basking in U.S. public approval for the killing of Osama bin Laden, flew to a military base on Friday to thank special forces involved in the deadly raid deep inside Pakistan.
With Obama’s approval ratings up and even his harshest Republican critics congratulating him for the bin Laden operation, he arrived at Fort Campbell to pay tribute to the elite military team five days after announcing the al Qaeda leader was dead.
Obama’s visit, just a day after attending a somber wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, came as questions continued piling up about initial U.S. accounts of the airborne assault on the compound where bin Laden had been hiding.
U.S. acknowledgment that bin Laden was unarmed when shot in the head — as well as the sea burial of his body, a rare practice in Islam — has drawn criticism in the Muslim world and Europe, where some warn of a backlash against the West.
But most Americans regard the secretive special unit that killed bin Laden — the mastermind of the 2001 hijack-plane attacks on the United States — as national heroes, and Obama came to thank some of them personally.
The strike team included Navy SEAL commandos who underwent weeks of intensive training for the nighttime assault on bin Laden’s high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Fort Campbell is home to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a unit nicknamed the “Night Stalkers” and whose helicopter pilots were reported to have flown the mission.
Though Obama planned to address soldiers recently returned from combat tours in Afghanistan, his meeting with special forces was to be held privately because of the covert nature of their work.
The president met Vice Admiral William McRaven, thought to be the man in overall command of the raid, at the White House on Wednesday.
Obama’s visit to Fort Campbell was another chance to bask in the glow of the bin Laden operation. He is already enjoying political dividends, with recent polls showing his job approval rating jumping above 50 percent after bin Laden’s death and overall views of his leadership improved.
But the boost could be short-lived as voters focus again on the sour economy, lingering unemployment and high gasoline prices — top public concerns considered crucial to Obama’s re-election chances in 2012.
Despite that, the killing of bin Laden will make it easier for Obama to fend off criticism that he is too weak on national security for a commander in chief, charges that Republicans have wielded effectively against Democrats for decades.
Though Obama has cautioned against triumphalism and the White House wants to avoid any appearance of politicizing bin Laden’s death, even his political opponents seem willing to let him savor the moment.
Besides his late-night appearance on Sunday to announce bin Laden’s death, Obama used a Medal of Honor ceremony for heroes of the Korean War to lavish praise on those who carried out the Pakistan mission. He also gave a lengthy interview to CBS’s highly rated “60 Minutes” program that will air on Sunday.
Obama’s Fort Campbell visit also gave him a chance to try to reassure Americans about his commitment to his long-standing pledge to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July.
With the demise of the man who came to symbolize Islamist militancy, Obama is facing pressure to speed up the U.S. exit from the unpopular war 10 years after U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers for giving safe haven to bin Laden and al Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
But U.S. officials have insisted that while seriously weakened by the loss of bin Laden, al Qaeda remains a dangerous force and it is time to redouble efforts to crush it.