Page 2 of 2   <      

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

Although public support for Bush's handling of terrorism has fallen in his second term -- 46 percent of respondents approved of his handling of the issue in this month's Washington Post-ABC News poll, while 51 percent disapproved -- the White House still views al-Qaeda as its most successful justification for remaining in Iraq. After some critics accused Bush of overstating the connection between bin Laden's group and al-Qaeda in Iraq, the White House quickly arranged a presidential speech to defend and reinforce its assertions.

The reason to emphasize al-Qaeda, aides said, is simple. "People know what that means," said one senior official who spoke about internal strategy on the condition of anonymity. "The average person doesn't understand why the Sunnis and Shia don't like each other. They don't know where the Kurds live. . . . And al-Qaeda is something they know. They're the enemy of the United States."

The new ad campaign drives that home more emotionally than any speech. Sponsored by a group of Bush allies under the name Freedom's Watch, four spots are airing in 60 congressional districts in 20 states. The commercials urge Congress to stick with the president's strategy in Iraq. The most poignant of them stars a soldier identified as John Kriesel, who was wounded on Dec. 2, 2006, and is shown walking with two artificial legs.

Former Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, one of the group's founders, said the ad is not misleading by saying "they attacked us" in the context of Iraq and showing the image of the Sept. 11 attack. "Iraqis did not attack us on 9/11," he agreed. But it does not matter, Fleischer added, because some of the same sorts of people who did are now fighting U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Nine-one-one absolutely is a bona fide, legitimate reason to remind people what's at stake," he said. "The point is not that Iraq was responsible for 9/11. They're not. But 9/11 should be a vivid reminder to everyone about how vulnerable our country is and that's why we need to win in Iraq."

The question of what relationship the Iraq war has to the broader terrorism fight prompted a tense exchange during yesterday's Senate hearing. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading war opponent, suggested Iraq has diverted too much attention and resources. "The question we must answer is not whether we are winning or losing in Iraq but whether Iraq is helping or hurting our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda," Feingold said. "That is the lesson of 9/11, and it's a lesson we must remember today."

Feingold pressed Crocker, who has served as ambassador in Pakistan, to say whether the hunt for radicals in Afghanistan and Pakistan or the campaign in Iraq was more important to defeating al-Qaeda.

Crocker would not choose. "Fighting al-Qaeda in Pakistan is critically important to us," he said. "Fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq is critically important to us."

<       2

© 2007 The Washington Post Company