WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday compared the war on terrorism to the struggle against communism and said a network of Islamic extremists was determined to use Iraq as a staging ground to topple moderate governments in the region and to "establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said, the United States and its allies have disrupted at least 10 Al Qaeda terrorist plots against the West, including three planned attacks on U.S. soil, and stopped at least five additional attempts to scout out potential targets in this country.
The White House later issued a list of the foiled plots, citing potential Sept. 11-style airliner attacks on both coasts, a plan to blow up apartment buildings and surveillance of gas stations, bridges and tourist sites nationwide. But several senior law enforcement officials interviewed later questioned whether many of the incidents on the list constituted an imminent threat to public safety and said that authorities had not disrupted any operational terrorist plot within the United States since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Although the arguments Bush used in his lengthy speech were not new, he described the U.S.-declared war on terrorism and its link to Iraq in grander terms than previously, equating it to the Cold War that dominated U.S. foreign policy throughout the second half of the 20th century and comparing terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi to such tyrants as Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Cambodia's Pol Pot.
"Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others, militant jihadism; still others, Islamo-fascism," Bush said in his remarks to the National Endowment for Democracy, a nongovernmental advocacy group in Washington. "Whatever it's called, this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam."
Bush described what he saw as the depth of the terrorist threat on a day when New Yorkers were alerted to an unspecified threat to the subway system.
The speech, billed as a major policy address, came at the end of a weeklong effort by his administration to shore up popular support for the central tenets of his foreign policy. Bush's approval rating has fallen to new lows in recent polls, and support for the Iraq war has declined.
The remarks also suggested a renewed effort by the administration to regain favor in the wake of criticism over its handling of Hurricane Katrina and were intended in part as a response to the antiwar movement, coming just weeks after a big demonstration in Washington and a monthlong protest outside his vacation home in Texas brought new visibility to the war's opponents.
Bush, in his remarks, appeared to counter recent statements by military commanders in Iraq, including two generals who told lawmakers last week that the presence of U.S. troops was fueling the insurgency in Iraq and energizing terrorists across the Middle East.
Pulling out of Iraq, the president said, would not cause the anger of terrorists to subside.
"We were not in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2001, and Al Qaeda attacked us anyway," he said. "The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue, and it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse."
It was not the first time Bush's message differed from that of his generals. Over the summer, generals suggested that U.S. troops could begin coming home in the spring, but Bush insisted that they would remain in Iraq until the insurgency was defeated.
Bush said America's failure to respond more aggressively to attacks in Beirut during the Reagan administration and Mogadishu, Somalia, during the Clinton presidency had convinced terrorists that they had a winning strategy: "They hit us and expect us to run."
Pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq would only reinforce that conviction, Bush said, and it would not happen on his watch. "Against such an enemy there is only one effective response," he said. "We will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory."
He acknowledged the toll of the war in Iraq, where more than 1,900 U.S. troops and thousands of Iraqis have been killed, and said the casualty count would certainly rise. U.S. officials have predicted an upsurge of violence as Iraq's Oct. 15 constitutional referendum nears.
On Capitol Hill, Republican leaders said the president's speech demonstrated his "strong, principled leadership."
Democrats countered that Bush was perpetuating what they called a false linkage between the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war.
"The president went into Iraq on the basis of a false premise, without a plan, and has totally mismanaged the war," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said. "Now he's trying to justify his actions with a series of excuses that are not reasons for us to be there."