CHARLESTON, S.C. — 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.