On Tuesday President George W. Bush delivered what some have called his longest, most detailed argument yet that Al Qaeda in Iraq is linked to the central Al Qaeda organization. Speaking to 300 troops at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, the president argued that a new unclassified report clearly indicated a connection between the Al Qaeda who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is largely believed to be composed of a strong majority of Iraqi nationals. Politicians, intelligence officials, and regional analysts have met Mr. Bush's recent assertions with much skepticism.
In his address Bush made it clear that he intended to rebut those who accused him of drawing links between the two organizations to create a "distraction from the real war on terror." In his speech, reprinted on the official White House website, Bush accused those who contested his position of having problems "with the facts."
Here's the bottom line: Al Qaida in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden. Like bin Laden, they are cold-blooded killers who murder the innocent to achieve al Qaida's political objectives. Yet despite all the evidence, some will tell you that al Qaida in Iraq is not really al Qaida – and not really a threat to America. Well, that's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun, and saying he's probably just there to cash a check.
White House officials have ardently defended Bush's speech, but many Democratic congressmen criticized the president of exaggerating the connection between the two groups, reports The New York Times.
Kevin Sullivan, the White House communications director, said the speech was devised as a "surge of facts" meant to rebut critics who say Mr. Bush is trying to rebuild support for the war by linking the Iraq group and the one led by Mr. bin Laden.
But Democratic lawmakers accused Mr. Bush of overstating those ties to provide a basis for continuing the American presence in Iraq. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, said Mr. Bush was "trying to justify claims that have long ago been proven to be misleading."
Intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts also called Bush's speech "misleading." Throughout the speech the president referred to Al Qaeda 95 times, but of those he only referenced Al Qaeda in Iraq 29 times, reports the Los Angeles Times. He also warned that a withdrawal of US troops could turn Iraq into a terrorist training ground akin to Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"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's speech may have misinterpreted the National Intelligence Estimate report upon which he based his argument say a number of intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts. The report described Al Qaeda in Iraq as an "affiliate" of the central Al Qaeda organization currently flourishing in Pakistan, reports The Washington Post. However, the report did not say that the Iraq group took orders from the main Al Qaeda organization. Rather it indicated that Al Qaeda might attempt to utilize the Iraq organization's "contacts and capabilities" for fundraising and recruiting.
That conclusion prompted Democrats and others to say that al-Qaeda is not running the war, but is instead benefiting from it, and thus that the conflict has increased the terrorist threat rather than diminished it.
"The masterminds who want to harm this country are in Pakistan while our troops are in Iraq. It doesn't get much simpler than that," said Rand Beers, a former National Security Council aide who is president of the National Security Network, an advocacy group.
In a response speech to Bush's address, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts accused the president of "ignoring" intelligence reports and espousing a "false rationale for the escalation of the war in Iraq," reports The Washington Times.
"The National Intelligence Estimate contradicted what the president said today and made it clear that al Qaeda is stronger because of our massive military presence in Iraq," Mr. Kerry said. "No surplus of presidential scare tactics changes the fact that Iraqis will only stand up if we give them deadlines and engage in diplomacy. The president continues to traffic in the politics of fear rather than give our troops a policy based on truth."
Last week, the US military in Iraq announced that they captured Al Qaeda in Iraq's senior most leader, who it said proved a link between the Iraqi organization and the main Al Qaeda organization, reports The Christian Science Monitor. The military's announcement seemed to strengthen the Bush administration's claims about the Iraqi group's ties to the global organization, but there still remained many skeptics.
"The Americans have been playing up the role of Al Qaeda in the context of the insurgency.... Al Qaeda is clearly an important segment in the counterinsurgency campaign, but it's not the only one. It may not be the biggest quantitative factor but qualitatively they are important," says Martin Navias, a counterterrorism expert at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College in London.
The South Carolina newspaper The State quoted Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina as insisting that Bush is determined not to withdraw prematurely. "The president is firmly resolved in his mind that Iraq is a part of a global struggle, and we will not leave until we can leave with honor." Mr. Lindsey, a strong supporter of the Iraq war, invited Bush to speak at the Air Force base.
From the Iraqi perspective, part of America's task in the remaining two years that it plans to be in their country is to eradicate Al Qaeda in Iraq, reports The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"Before America came into Iraq we didn't have Al Qaeda in Iraq," said [Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Iraqi Parliament]. "So at least they came to fight America and they came to fight Iraqis also – they are killing a lot of innocent Iraqis. That's why it is the duty of America to help Iraqis, and Iraqis and America together to clean out this country from Al Qaeda."