In his prime-time press conference last week, which focused almost solely on Iraq, President Bush mentioned Sept. 11 eight times. He referred to Saddam Hussein many more times than that, often in the same breath with Sept. 11.
Bush never pinned blame for the attacks directly on the Iraqi president. Still, the overall effect was to reinforce an impression that persists among much of the American public: that the Iraqi dictator did play a direct role in the attacks. A New York Times/CBS poll this week shows that 45 percent of Americans believe Mr. Hussein was "personally involved" in Sept. 11, about the same figure as a month ago.
Sources knowledgeable about US intelligence say there is no evidence that Hussein played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, nor that he has been or is currently aiding Al Qaeda. Yet the White House appears to be encouraging this false impression, as it seeks to maintain American support for a possible war against Iraq and demonstrate seriousness of purpose to Hussein's regime.
"The administration has succeeded in creating a sense that there is some connection [between Sept. 11 and Saddam Hussein]," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland.
Polling data show that right after Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans were asked open-ended questions about who was behind the attacks, only 3 percent mentioned Iraq or Hussein. But by January of this year, attitudes had been transformed. In a Knight Ridder poll, 44 percent of Americans reported that either "most" or "some" of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens. The answer is zero.
According to Mr. Kull of PIPA, there is a strong correlation between those who see the Sept. 11-Iraq connection and those who support going to war.
In Selma, Ala., firefighter Thomas Wilson supports going to war with Iraq, and brings up Sept. 11 himself, saying we don't know who's already here in the US waiting to attack. When asked what that has to do with Iraq, he replies: "They're all in it together - all of them hate this country." The reason: "prosperity."
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden himself recently encouraged the perception of a link, when he encouraged attacks on the US in response to a US war against Iraq. But, terror experts note, common animosity toward the United States does not make Hussein and Mr. bin Laden allies.
Hussein, a secularist, and bin Laden, a Muslim fundamentalist, are known to despise each other. Bin Laden's stated sympathies are always toward the Iraqi people, not the regime.
This is not to say that Hussein has no link to terrorists. Over the years, terrorist leader Abu Nidal - who died in Baghdad last year - used Iraq as a sometime base. Terrorism experts also don't rule out that some Al Qaeda fighters have slipped into Iraqi territory.
The point, says Eric Larson, a senior policy analyst at RAND who specializes in public opinion and war, is that the US public understands what Hussein is all about - which includes his invasion of two countries and the use of biological and chemical agents. "He's expressed interest - and done more than that - in trying to develop a nuclear capability," says Mr. Larson. "In general, the public is rattled about this.... There's a jumble of attitudes in many Americans' minds, which fit together as a mosaic that [creates] a basic predisposition for military action against Saddam."
In the end, will it matter if some Americans have meshed together Sept. 11 and Iraq? If the US and its allies go to war against Iraq, and it goes well, then the Bush administration is likely not to face questions about the way it sold the war. But if war and its aftermath go badly, then the administration could be under fire.
"Going to war with improper public understanding is risky," says Richard Parker, a former US ambassador to several Mideast countries. "If it's a failure, and we get bogged down, this is one of the accusations that [Bush] will have to face when it's all over."
Antiwar activist Daniel Ellsberg says it's important to understand why public opinion appears to be playing out differently in the US and Europe. In fact, both peoples express a desire to work through the UN. But the citizens get different messages from their leaders. "Americans have been told by their president [that Hussein is] a threat to security, and so they believe that," says Mr. Ellsberg. "It's rather amazing, in light of that, that so many Americans do want this to be authorized by the UN. After all, the president keeps saying we don't have to ask the UN for permission to defend ourselves."
• Staff writers Liz Marlantes and Faye Bowers contributed to this report.