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Sat 7 May 2011 09:50 AM

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Obama flies in to thank unit which killed bin Laden

'Job well done,' US president tells special forces who carried out raid that killed al Qaeda leader

Obama flies in to thank unit which killed bin Laden
President Barack Obama at a wreath laying ceremony at Ground Zero after accused 9-11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed on May 5. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Obama flies in to thank unit which killed bin Laden
Obama flies in to thank unit which killed bin Laden
Obama flies in to thank unit which killed bin Laden

President Barack
Obama, basking in US public approval for the killing of Osama bin
Laden, flew to a military base in Kentucky to thank special
forces who carried out the deadly raid and led a rally filled with
cheering troops.

With his poll numbers up and
even Republican critics congratulating him for the bin Laden operation,
Obama paid tribute to the elite military team in a secrecy-shrouded
meeting at Fort Campbell five days after announcing the al Qaeda leader
was dead.

Commandos who conducted
the assault on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan gave Obama first-hand
accounts of what happened, and he awarded them the highest presidential
honour a military unit can receive, a US official said.

"It
was a chance for me to say on behalf of all Americans and people around
the world: Job well done," Obama told a jubilant audience of soldiers
just returned from tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Obama
said "justice for Osama bin Laden" showed his Afghanistan war strategy
was working and he repeated his pledge to start withdrawing troops from
the country this summer.

Obama's
visit, just a day after attending a sombre wreath-laying ceremony at the
Ground Zero site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, came
as questions grew about initial US details of the airborne assault on
bin Laden's hide-out.

US
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 operations unit that killed bin
Laden - the mastermind of the September 11 hijack-plane attacks on the
United States - as national heroes, and Obama came to thank some of
them personally.

Soldiers gathered
in a giant aircraft hangar festooned with American flags and a band
belting out rock 'n' roll tunes. A huge "Job well done!" banner hung
from the wall.

The strike team for
the bin Laden operation included SEAL commandos who underwent weeks of
intensive training for the nighttime assault on bin Laden's high-walled
compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The
sprawling Kentucky base is home to the US Army's 160th Special
Operations Aviation Regiment, a unit nicknamed the "Night Stalkers" and
whose helicopter pilots were reported to have flown the mission.

Obama's meeting with special forces operatives was held privately to protect the secretive nature of their work.

Secrecy
was so tight that journalists travelling with Obama were removed from
his motorcade and not even allowed to see the exterior of the special
operations centre where the meeting took place.

Obama
is already reaping dividends from bin Laden's death, with most recent
polls showing his job approval rating jumping above 50 percent since the
raid.

But the boost could be
short-lived as voters focus again on the struggling economy, lingering
unemployment and high gasoline prices - top public concerns considered
crucial to Obama's re-election chances next year.

The
killing of bin Laden will make it easier for Obama, however, to fend
off criticism he is weak on national security, charges that Republicans
have deployed effectively against Democrats for decades.

Although
Obama has cautioned against triumphalism over bin Laden's death, even
his political opponents seem willing to let him savour it.

"This
has been an extraordinary week for our nation," he told the troops.
"The terrorist leader who struck our nation on September 11 will never
threaten our nation again." But he warned that "this continues to be a
very tough fight."

White House
spokesman Jay Carney insisted earlier that Obama was not "gloating"
about bin Laden's demise and was mindful the war against al Qaeda was
far from over.

Al Qaeda confirmed on Friday that bin Laden was dead and vowed to mount more attacks on the West.

Obama's
visit was also a chance to try to rally support for the war effort in
Afghanistan while reassuring 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 already facing
pressure from some lawmakers to speed up the U.S. exit from an unpopular
war 10 years after Washington helped topple Afghanistan's Taliban for
sheltering bin Laden and al Qaeda after 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 step
up efforts to crush it.

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