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WASHINGTON/ABBOTTABAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he had decided not to release photographs of Osama bin Laden's body because they could have incited violence and been used as an al Qaeda propaganda tool.
Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking to head off suggestions that killing the al Qaeda leader was illegal, said the U.S. commandos who raided bin Laden's Pakistani hideout on Monday had acted in national self-defense.
In deciding not to make public the pictures of the corpse, Obama resisted arguments that to do so could counter skeptics who have argued there is no proof bin Laden is dead.
"I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk," Obama told the CBS program "60 Minutes."
"It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence. As a propaganda tool," the president added.
Poll:impact of bin Laden death, click r.reuters.com/taq39r
3D illustration of operation, click r.reuters.com/pew39r
Map: al Qaeda inspired groups, click r.reuters.com/mur39r
"There's no doubt that Bin Laden is dead," Obama said. "And so we don't think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again."
The decision not to release photos of bin Laden followed intense debate in the Obama administration. CIA Director Leon Panetta had said on Tuesday the pictures would be released.
Washington had to weigh sensitivities in the Muslim world over what White House spokesman Jay Carney called "a gruesome photograph" of bin Laden before Obama made his decision.
One U.S. Senator said she had seen a picture showing bin Laden's face. "I have seen one of them," Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said, adding she believed it confirmed his identity.
Defending the killing of what the White House has acknowledged was an unarmed bin Laden, Holder said he was a legitimate military target and had made no attempt to surrender to the American forces who stormed his fortified compound near Islamabad and shot him in the head.
"It was justified as an act of national self-defense," Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing bin Laden's admission of being involved in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
It was lawful to target bin Laden because he was the enemy commander in the field and the operation was conducted in a way that was consistent with U.S. laws and values, he said, adding that it was a "kill or capture mission."
"If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate," he said.
U.S. acknowledgment on Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed when shot dead had raised accusations Washington had violated international law. Exact circumstances of his death remained unclear and could yet fuel controversy, especially in the Muslim world.
Pakistan faced national embarrassment, a leading Islamabad newspaper said, in explaining how the world's most-wanted man was able to live for years in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, just north of the capital.
Pakistan blamed worldwide intelligence lapses for a failure to detect bin Laden, while Washington worked to establish whether its ally had sheltered the al Qaeda leader, which Islamabad vehemently denies.
"There is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told reporters in Paris.
The revelation that bin Laden was unarmed contradicted an earlier U.S. account that he had participated in a firefight with the helicopter-borne U.S. commandos. Al Arabiya television suggested the architect of the 9/11 attacks was first taken prisoner and then shot.
A Pakistani security source "quoted the daughter of Osama bin Laden that the leader of al Qaeda was not killed inside his house, but had been arrested and was killed later," the Arabic television station said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday cited the "fog of war" as a reason for the initial misinformation.
Bin Laden's killing and the swift burial of his body at sea have produced some criticism in the Muslim world and charges that Washington acted outside international law.
"The Americans behaved in the same way as bin Laden: with treachery and baseness," Husayn al-Sawaf, 25, a playwright, said in Cairo. "They should've tried him in a court. As for his burial, that's not Islamic. He should've been buried in soil."
But there has been no sign of mass protests or violent reaction on the streets in south Asia or the Middle East, where Islamist militancy appears to have been eclipsed by pro-democracy movements sweeping the region.
There has been little questioning of the operation in the United States, where bin Laden's killing was greeted with street celebrations. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed the killing boosted Obama's image, improving Americans' views of his leadership and his efforts to fight terrorism.
Pakistan has welcomed bin Laden's death, but its Foreign Ministry expressed deep concerns about the raid, which it called an "unauthorized unilateral action."
The CIA said it kept Pakistan out of the loop because it feared bin Laden would be tipped off, highlighting the depth of mistrust between the two supposed allies.
The Pakistani newspaper Dawn compared the latest humiliation with the admission in 2004 that one of the country's top scientists had sold its nuclear secrets. "Not since Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed to transferring nuclear technology to Iran and Libya has Pakistan suffered such an embarrassment," it said.
The streets around bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad remained sealed off on Wednesday, with police and soldiers allowing only residents to pass through.
Carney insisted on Tuesday bin Laden resisted when U.S. forces stormed his compound in the 40-minute operation. He would not say how.
The strike team opened fire in response to "threatening moves" as they reached the third-floor room where they found bin Laden, CIA Director Leon Panetta told PBS television.
But former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called the killing "quite clearly a violation of international law." Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent London-based human rights lawyer, said the killing "may well have been a cold-blooded assassination" that risked making bin Laden a martyr.
Pakistan has come under intense international scrutiny since bin Laden's death, with questions on whether its security agencies were too incompetent to catch him or knew all along where he was hiding, and even whether they were complicit.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, who harbored bin Laden until they were overthrown in late 2001, challenged the truth of his death, saying Washington had not provided "acceptable evidence to back up their claim" that he had been killed.
(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Ralph Boulton and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Anthony Boadle)