President Bush made provocative new assertions Tuesday about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq, using recently declassified information to make his case that the global battle with the terrorism network -- and Americans’ safety at home -- hinges on keeping U.S. troops there to fight.
Bush’s comments were met with skepticism by some terrorism experts and former U.S. intelligence officials, who said the president exaggerated or even misrepresented the facts in Iraq.
Speaking to about 300 troops at Charleston Air Force Base, Bush said that Al Qaeda in Iraq was essentially the same organization that attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and that it was by far the biggest threat facing Iraqis and U.S.-led coalition troops there. Bush said that its leaders took orders from Al Qaeda officials coordinating the organization’s worldwide jihad, or holy war, and that they would be killing civilians somewhere else if they were not in Iraq.
“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.
“Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “Al Qaeda in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden. Like Bin Laden, they are coldblooded killers who murder the innocent to achieve Al Qaeda’s political objectives.
“Yet despite all the evidence, some will tell you that Al Qaeda in Iraq is not really Al Qaeda and not really a threat to America,” the president continued. “Well, that’s like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying’s he’s probably just there to cash a check.”
Bush’s impassioned 28-minute speech was the administration’s longest and most detailed argument to date that Al Qaeda in Iraq and Bin Laden’s terrorist operation were one and the same. Bush used it, he acknowledged, to rebut his critics’ assertions that the Iraqi militant group was not justification enough for keeping U.S. troops in the war-riven country.
“For the security of our citizens and the peace of the world, we must give Gen. [David H.] Petraeus and his troops the time and the resources they need so they can defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Bush said of his top commander in the country.
White House officials said Bush used declassified intelligence reports and assessments to make his case, though they would not disclose details of where the information came from.
Bush’s address to the 437th Airlift Wing contained oft-repeated assertions that the president and other officials have made in recent months to rally lagging support for the war. He mentioned Al Qaeda 95 times -- and of those, 29 were in references to the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Bush also employed chilling new language to expand on his warnings that a pullout could have grave consequences in the United States, turning Iraq into a country like Afghanistan in 2001, from which Al Qaeda could plot devastating attacks on U.S. soil.
“If we were not fighting these Al Qaeda extremists and terrorists in Iraq, they would not be leading productive lives of service and charity,” Bush said. “Most would be trying to kill Americans and other civilians elsewhere, in Afghanistan or other foreign capitals or on the streets of our own cities.”
Some U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials said Bush’s broader assertions were in line with analysts’ views. They noted that Bush used careful wording and deliberate attribution in cases in which he was citing intelligence that had not been substantiated.
But other experts and former U.S. intelligence officials questioned those assertions.
They noted that the Iraq conflict had undoubtedly attracted Islamic extremists who were trained in Afghanistan and might have fought in other theaters. But some cited an official U.S. National Intelligence Estimate released last year that described Iraq as a “cause celebre” for Islamic radicals worldwide, fanning anger and resentment across the Muslim world and beyond.
“I think what the president is saying is in some sense fundamentally misleading,” said Robert Grenier, former head of the counter-terrorism center at the CIA as well as the agency’s mission manager for the war in Iraq. “If he means to suggest the invasion of Iraq has not created more jihadists bent on killing Americans, and that if Iraq hadn’t been there as a magnet they would have been attracted somewhere else, that’s completely disingenuous.”
The war “has convinced many Muslims that the United States is the enemy of Islam and is attacking Muslims, and they have become jihadists as a result of their experience in Iraq,” Grenier said.
Bush also said Al Qaeda in Iraq posed a threat to Americans at home. “We’ve already seen how Al Qaeda used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities, and we must not allow them to do so again,” he said.
Several experts said prevailing U.S. intelligence was at odds with that assertion as well.
Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, a veteran counter-terrorism analyst and government consultant, said the vast majority of fighters who are part of Al Qaeda in Iraq are Iraqis who have shown little interest in seeking targets beyond that country’s borders.
In his speech, Bush acknowledged that the organization was one of several Sunni Muslim radical militant groups in Iraq, but that the intelligence community considered it to be the most dangerous because it was behind “most of the spectacular, high-casualty attacks,” which were intended to accelerate sectarian violence.
Frank Hyland, a former consultant at the CIA’s counter-terrorism center and at the multi-agency National Counterterrorism Center, said he agreed that Al Qaeda in Iraq was a dangerous organization with ties to Al Qaeda central in Pakistan.
But he added that Al Qaeda in Iraq was one of dozens of groups attacking civilians and U.S.-led troops in Iraq.
Other Sunni groups, Shiite Muslim militias such as the Al Mahdi army, criminal gangs, “throwaway kids” and Iranian intelligence operatives are doing so as well, he said.
A British panel of private and government experts known as the Iraq Commission released a report this month that concluded there were between 50 and 75 “disparate groups, formed to rid the country of coalition forces.”
One of the more controversial claims that the Bush administration has made involves the operational link between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s command-and-control operations headed by Bin Laden and others in Pakistan.
On Tuesday, Bush sought to bolster what he said were direct ties between the two, in response to criticism that the administration has been exaggerating the connections.
Bush said the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the late Abu Musab Zarqawi, merged his organization with Al Qaeda and pledged allegiance to it.
Some experts and former U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that the Iraq group had always had its own agenda, as evidenced by a public fallout between Zarqawi and Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri, over Zarqawi’s killing of Shiite Muslims in Iraq.
Bush alluded to that disagreement in his speech, but he emphasized repeatedly that Al Qaeda in Iraq was part of Al Qaeda’s “decentralized chain of command, not ... a separate group” and that the two operations were “united in their overarching strategy.”
As evidence of Al Qaeda’s connection to the Iraqi group, Bush said, after Zarqawi -- a Jordanian-born Palestinian -- was killed by a U.S. airstrike last year, he was replaced by another foreigner, Egyptian Abu Ayyub Masri, whose ties to the Al Qaeda senior leadership are “deep and long-standing.”
Bush said that according to the declassified intelligence, many of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s other senior leaders are also foreign militants. They include a Syrian who is Al Qaeda in Iraq’s “emir” in Baghdad, a Saudi who is its top spiritual and legal advisor, an Egyptian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s and a Tunisian who U.S. officials believe plays a key role in managing foreign fighters, the president said.
Rand Beers, a former senior Bush and Clinton administration counter-terrorism official, said Bush was exaggerating the connections.
“There is no question that he is oversimplifying what is happening there in Iraq,” Beers said. “He is misrepresenting where the major front of Al Qaeda is, which is in Pakistan.”
Meyer and Miller reported from Washington and Gerstenzang from Charleston.