- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In his most direct effort to date to connect al Qaeda to the Iraq war, President Bush yesterday cited declassified intelligence to tie terrorists operating in Iraq with September 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, saying new evidence “clearly establishes this connection.”

Taking direct aim at Democrats who charge the president has exaggerated the al Qaeda presence in Iraq, Mr. Bush declared that the highest echelon of bin Laden’s terrorist organization has masterminded the foreign insurgency in Iraq, dispatching terrorists to the country to fight U.S. forces there.

Al Qaeda in Iraq is a group founded by foreign terrorists, led largely by foreign terrorists, and loyal to a foreign terrorist leader — Osama bin Laden,” the president said in a speech at an Air Force base in Charleston, S.C.

“They know they’re al Qaeda. The Iraqi people know they are al Qaeda. People across the Muslim world know they are al Qaeda. And there’s a good reason they are called al Qaeda in Iraq. They are al Qaeda. In. Iraq,” he said, making dramatic pauses for emphasis.

Just a day after Democrats held a presidential debate in Charleston — and every candidate rejected the Bush administration’s justification for remaining in IraqMr. Bush laid out his case that the war is the central front in the global battle against Islamic extremism.

“There’s a debate in Washington about Iraq. … Some say that Iraq is not part of the broader war on terror. They complain when I say that the al Qaeda terrorists we face in Iraq are part of the same enemy that attacked us on September 11, 2001. They claim that the organization called al Qaeda in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon, that it’s independent of Osama bin Laden and that it’s not interested in attacking America.”

The president said that view would “be news to Osama bin Laden.”

“He’s proclaimed that the ‘third world war is raging in Iraq.’ Osama bin Laden says, ‘The war is for you or for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever.’ I say that there will be a big defeat in Iraq and it will be the defeat of al Qaeda,” Mr. Bush said to applause.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, delivered the Democratic response to the speech, saying Mr. Bush was ignoring U.S. intelligence reports to “spin a false rationale for the escalation of the war in Iraq.”

“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.”

The president has long fought with Democrats who claim he overstates the al Qaeda-Iraq connection. While the al Qaeda presence in Iraq was negligible at the time of September 11, foreign members of the terror group have since flooded into Iraq to fight U.S. forces.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday also rejected Mr. Bush’s contention, and instead said that “despite what the president would like us to believe, it has been established that al Qaeda had no active cells in Iraq when we invaded, and we have long known that we were not attacked from Iraq on 9/11.”

Mr. Bush yesterday methodically laid out a case that al Qaeda has sought to establish Iraq as a safe haven from which to operate, and even declassified some U.S. intelligence to strike back at Democrats who say the Iraq war has nothing to do with al Qaeda.

“If they can convince America we’re not fighting bin Laden’s al Qaeda there, they can paint the battle in Iraq as a distraction from the real war on terror. … The problem they have is with the facts. We are fighting bin Laden’s al Qaeda in Iraq; Iraq is central to the war on terror,” he said. The president ticked off the facts:

c Al Qaeda in Iraq was founded by foreign terrorists linked to senior al Qaeda leadership. The founder of the Iraqi branch was Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian terrorist who had pledged his allegiance to bin Laden.

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