By describing the U.S. effort in Iraq largely as a struggle against Al Qaeda, President Bush on Tuesday reached for a familiar -- but widely questioned -- way of defining the war.
“The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is a crowd that is now bombing people” in Iraq, Bush said. “The killers who came to America have said, with clarity, we want you out of Iraq so we can have a safe haven from which to attack again.”
Bush’s remarks echoed an administration effort to establish links between the Al Qaeda terrorist network and Iraq that began before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Insurgents affiliated with the group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Iraq have been involved in many attacks in that country. But the CIA, Pentagon and other experts have debated the group’s role in Iraq and its ties to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is one of several Sunni Muslim insurgent groups. U.S. and Iraqi officials have blamed it for many high-profile attacks. A Pentagon report late last year, however, said that Shiite Muslim militias, not Al Qaeda, were the largest threat to security in Iraq.
The connection between the group in Iraq and Bin Laden’s network, which is based along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, is unclear. Abu Musab Zarqawi, the late leader of the group that became known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, had operated independently. He drew criticism from Al Qaeda for his bloody tactics.
An authoritative intelligence report in February predicted that Al Qaeda would attempt to use parts of Iraq to plan and launch attacks abroad if the U.S. were to withdraw. But the report did not indicate that intelligence experts believe Iraq will become an Al Qaeda sanctuary.