By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
CHARLESTON, S.C., July 24 -- President Bush argued anew Tuesday that the Sunni insurgent group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq is an integral part of the larger al-Qaeda terrorist network, as he attempted to rebut critics who say the war in Iraq has distracted the United States from a broader struggle against Islamic extremism.
With public support for the war steadily declining, Bush told an audience of military personnel at an Air Force base here that many foreigners, including top lieutenants to Osama bin Laden, lead the Iraqi group. Some of them, he added, trained with the organization at its terrorist camps in Afghanistan or otherwise have deep ties with the network.
"Some will tell you al-Qaeda in Iraq isn't really al-Qaeda -- and not really a threat to America," Bush said. "Well, that's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun, and saying he's probably just there to cash a check. We are fighting bin Laden's al-Qaeda in Iraq."
Critics of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq -- including former intelligence officials, lawmakers and regional experts -- have said that al-Qaeda in Iraq grew up in response to the U.S. occupation and that loyalists of the group represent just a small percentage of the insurgent forces battling U.S. and Iraqi forces. Moreover, al-Qaeda as a whole represents an ideology for extremists as much as it does a functioning organization, some intelligence analysts have said.
But Bush called the Iraqi organization an "alliance of killers" and repeated earlier assertions that a military withdrawal would allow Iraq to be used as a base from which to strike the U.S. homeland.
"Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat," Bush said. "If we were to follow their advice, it would be dangerous for the world -- and disastrous for America."
Bush made his remarks as his administration is pressing for more time to see whether the recent increase of troops in Iraq can stabilize the country, even as the public and lawmakers grow increasingly weary of the war and Bush's handling of it. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that most Americans view Bush as too rigid in his support of the war.
U.S. intelligence officials, in a declassified report on al-Qaeda released last week, described al-Qaeda in Iraq as an "affiliate" of the larger terrorist network, which has reestablished a haven in Pakistan.
But the report did not say that the Iraqi group had taken orders from the network; instead, it said that the larger network "will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities" of the Iraqi group and use its association with the group to "energize the broader Sunni extremist community" for fundraising and recruiting.
That conclusion prompted Democrats and others to say that al-Qaeda is not running the war, but is instead benefiting from it, and thus that the conflict has increased the terrorist threat rather than diminished it.
"The masterminds who want to harm this country are in Pakistan while our troops are in Iraq. It doesn't get much simpler than that," said Rand Beers, a former National Security Council aide who is president of the National Security Network, an advocacy group.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) similarly said Bush's handling of the war has intensified the terrorist threat. "The National Intelligence Estimate contradicted what the president said today and made it clear that al-Qaeda is stronger because of our massive military presence in Iraq," he said Tuesday.
Although aides said that Bush had declassified sensitive information to make his case, most of the details he used have long been in the public domain. He said that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who formed al-Qaeda in Iraq, pledged allegiance to bin Laden in 2004. After U.S. forces killed Zarqawi in June 2006, he was replaced by an Egyptian known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who Bush said has "deep and long-standing ties" to al-Qaeda's senior leadership.
Bush said bin Laden sent "a terrorist leader named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi" to help Masri, but he was captured and sent to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The arrest and Guantanamo Bay transfer was announced in April, after intelligence sources said Hadi had been captured in Turkey by the Turkish military. At the time, the Pentagon identified Hadi as a former member of the Iraqi military and a trusted bin Laden lieutenant who was expert in guerrilla operations.
In May, a known al-Qaeda official said in an Arab television interview that Hadi had been sent to Iraq by bin Laden more than a year earlier, when Zarqawi was still alive. At the time, intercepted communications between bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri and Zarqawi indicated al-Qaeda unhappiness with the Iraqi organization and its inability to control Zarqawi.
Bush also added that another terrorist leader recently captured in Iraq, whom he identified only as Mashhadani, had told U.S. interrogators that the Iraqi organization there went to "extraordinary lengths to promote the fiction" that it was not run by foreigners tied to the central al-Qaeda network. Khalid al-Mashhadani's capture was announced in a news conference last week by U.S. forces in Baghdad.
Staff writers Walter Pincus and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report from Washington.