It's All About Al-Qaeda Again

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 3, 2007

President Bush is at odds with the American public and a restive congressional majority over the Iraq war, and even some Republicans talk about imposing new requirements that could trigger a troop withdrawal.

It's time to play the Qaeda card.

In a speech about Iraq yesterday morning at the Willard Hotel, the president mentioned Osama bin Laden's group -- 27 times. "For America, the decision we face in Iraq is not whether we ought to take sides in a civil war, it's whether we stay in the fight against the same international terrorist network that attacked us on 9/11," Bush told a group of construction contractors.

Never mind all that talk about sectarian strife and civil war in Iraq. "The primary reason for the high level of violence is this: Al-Qaeda has ratcheted up its campaign of high-profile attacks," Bush disclosed.

The man who four years ago admitted "no evidence" of an Iraqi role in the Sept. 11 attacks now finds solid evidence of a role in Iraq by the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"I don't need to remind you who al-Qaeda is," Bush reminded. "Al-Qaeda is the group that plot and planned and trained killers to come and kill people on our soil. The same bunch that is causing havoc in Iraq were the ones who came and murdered our citizens."

This new line of argument would seem to present some difficulty for the White House, and not only because, as the Pentagon inspector general reported last month, al-Qaeda had no ties to Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. More to the point: If the problem in Iraq isn't sectarian strife, then why is the U.S. military building walls to separate Sunni enclaves from Shiite neighborhoods?

The White House's plan to deemphasize sectarian fighting evidently didn't make it to Egypt, where Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Iraqi prime minister. A Rice deputy, briefing reporters yesterday on the condition of anonymity, said the United States wants Arab countries to pressure Sunnis to stop fighting the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

These awkward truths left White House press secretary Tony Snow with hard work at the podium in his first televised briefing since returning from cancer surgery.

Fox News Channel's Bret Baier noted: "This morning the president said that al-Qaeda seems to be a bigger problem than sectarian violence. That seems to fly in the face of what we've heard in recent weeks and months on the ground in Iraq."

"Well," the game press secretary replied, "you've got a shifting series of circumstances."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell wasn't convinced. "Wasn't the whole point of the surge to quell the capital and really to diminish the sectarian violence? And now he seems to be saying the enemy is more al-Qaeda."

Snow repeated his view that "there has been some change in status on the ground."

Martha Raddatz of ABC News took a turn calling Snow on the Qaeda card. This exchange, too, proved inconclusive. CBS Radio's Peter Maer took a final stab at the "systematic al-Qaeda attack" allegation, with a similar result.

While making no headway on the Qaeda question, reporters weren't eager to torture the convalescing press secretary (at least two of the reporters in the audience wore yellow cancer bracelets with Snow's name inscribed on them). They moved on to other subjects.

Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe held up a basket wrapped in colored cellophane. "Mangoes from India arrived, and here is a basket for President Bush," the reporter offered. "My question is: What message does mangoes bring, as far as India-U.S. relations are concerned?"

For one of the few times during the briefing, Snow smiled. "I don't know. It is my first mango-related inquiry," he admitted. It wasn't long before the briefing deteriorated into questions about Marion Barry's income taxes and an entry in Ronald Reagan's diary calling one senator "a pompous no-good fathead."

The White House is well aware that it has had some trouble getting out a coherent message on Iraq. In his speech to the contractors, Bush delivered a less-than-ringing endorsement of the First Amendment, calling freedom of the press "just something that we've all got to live with."

And he implicitly acknowledged his own credibility gap when he admitted that "the best messenger, by the way, for us is David Petraeus," the top U.S. general in Iraq. Petraeus is such a good messenger, in fact, that Bush invoked his name 12 times in the speech. Snow gave Petraeus four shout-outs.

On the Hill, Republicans took a Qaeda cue from the White House. "I can't understand how my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, knowing that al-Qaeda is in charge over there, knowing that they want to destroy us, knowing that Osama bin Laden wants to destroy America, that you want to pull out," Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) railed on the House floor.

If Democrats are intimidated by the Qaeda card, they didn't show it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), an hour before visiting the White House to meet with Bush, gave an Iraq speech on the House floor. "This administration," she said, "should get a clue."

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