9/11 Linked To Iraq, In Politics if Not in Fact

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The television commercial is grim and gripping: A soldier who lost both legs in an explosion near Fallujah explains why he thinks U.S. forces need to stay in Iraq.

"They attacked us," he says as the screen turns to an image of the second hijacked airplane heading toward the smoking World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "And they will again. They won't stop in Iraq."

Every investigation has shown that Iraq did not, in fact, have anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks. But the ad, part of a new $15 million media blitz launched by an advocacy group allied with the White House, may be the most overt attempt during the current debate in Congress over the war to link the attacks with Iraq.

Six years later, the Sept. 11 attacks remain the touchstone of American politics, the most powerful force that can be summoned on behalf of an argument even as a nation united in their aftermath today stands divided on their meaning. While Washington spent yesterday's anniversary debating the U.S. involvement in Iraq, it struggled to define the relationship between the war there and the worldwide battle with al-Qaeda and other extremists.

During the second day of hearings featuring Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, the echoes of Sept. 11 reverberated through the chamber. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential candidate, got Petraeus to repeat his belief that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror." Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), another White House aspirant, complained about the timing of the hearing because it "perpetuates this notion that, somehow, the original decision to go into Iraq was directly related to the attacks on 9/11."

Some Republicans described the offshoot group al-Qaeda in Iraq as the dominant threat on the ground, playing down the broader sectarian battle for power at the heart of the conflict. Some Democrats called the war a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, playing down al-Qaeda's determination to use Iraq to strike a blow against U.S. interests.

For his part, President Bush kept a relatively low profile yesterday, attending a small service at St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square and later leading a moment of silence on the South Lawn of the White House. The White House released a five-page document outlining efforts to prevent future attacks and repeating the argument that "we are fighting violent extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the world so that we do not have to fight them on American soil."

The anniversary comes as U.S. intelligence specialists report that al-Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the tribal areas of Pakistan and bin Laden just released his first videotapes in nearly three years. The failure to capture him continues to bedevil the Bush team and its supporters.

The president's homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, dismissed bin Laden on Sunday as "virtually impotent," drawing criticism from terrorism analysts. And former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who just jumped into the Republican race for president, at first dismissed the importance of catching bin Laden compared with other terrorists who might be in the United States, only to retreat and quickly assert that he, too, wanted to "capture and kill" the al-Qaeda leader.

White House press secretary Tony Snow yesterday renewed the president's commitment to catching bin Laden as well. "We're going to find him," Snow said. But he added that "the war against terror is not the war against one guy."

Steve Simon, a counterterrorism official in the Clinton administration , said such comments are not surprising. "What else are they going to say?" he asked. "It's the sixth anniversary of 9/11 and bin Laden is still out there, probably in Pakistan giving us the finger. At this point, you've got to say he doesn't matter because otherwise it raises important questions."

Timothy J. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served on the independent commission that investigated the attacks, said yesterday's Iraq hearings on Capitol Hill demonstrated how "unidimensional" the war with al-Qaeda has become. "How are we best able to counter it?" he asked. "Is it in one place, in Baghdad? Or is it countering in many places it's popping up?"

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