FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, basking in U.S. public approval for the killing of Osama bin Laden, flew to a military base in Kentucky on Friday 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 honor a military unit can receive, a U.S. 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 somber wreath-laying ceremony at the Ground Zero site of the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York, came as questions grew about initial U.S. details of the airborne assault on bin Laden’s hide-out.
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 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 U.S. 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 traveling with Obama were removed from his motorcade and not even allowed to see the exterior of the special operations center 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 savor 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.
Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Peter Cooney