Iraq is now a battleground between U.S. forces and al Qaeda terrorists, a top national-security adviser to Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign said yesterday.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham made the statement — something no one on President Bush’s national-security team would argue with — during a conference call with reporters in which he and former Defense Secretary William Perry sharply attacked the administration’s policy in Iraq.
“Are there al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq today? The answer is absolutely yes,” said Mr. Graham, former ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “I would not be surprised if lieutenants of Osama bin Laden were part of that.”
But Mr. Graham blamed the administration for al Qaeda’s presence there, saying, “We created a situation of chaos. We made it an attractive haven for all kinds of terrorists.”
Repeating the same accusations he made during his failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the senator said the administration was “wrong in its judgment” when it decided to invade Iraq as part of its war on terrorism, in the belief that bin Laden and his al Qaeda agents maintained contacts with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“The administration said there was a linkage between Osama bin Laden and Iraq, so they jumped to the wrong conclusion that there must have been a connection between the [September 11] attacks and Iraq,” Mr. Graham said.
“There was no Iraqi involvement in the events of 9/11. There has been no warm relationship between Osama and Saddam. They have been enemies,” he said.
A senior Republican official said the accusation that the United States was responsible for the stepped-up terrorist insurgency in Iraq “is absurd,” but a Bush spokesman welcomed Mr. Graham’s observation that Iraq had become a battleground for al Qaeda terrorists who were the chief target of Mr. Bush’s war on terror.
“That al Qaeda and the terrorists are engaged in Iraq today shouldn’t surprise anyone. The number of terrorist attacks in Iraq makes that point,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.
“Graham is making the president’s case that we are there as part of the war on terror because that’s where the terrorists are. Americans instinctively understand this,” said another Republican adviser.
An April poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points, found that 57 percent of Americans think Iraq was helping al Qaeda before the war.
U.S. officials in Iraq have contributed to that view.
“At various times, al Qaeda people came through Baghdad and in some cases resided there,” said David Kay, who headed the Iraq Survey Group that searched for weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Graham and Mr. Perry held their telephone conference yesterday in response to the September 11 commission’s preliminary report and an Iraqi poll requested by the Coalition Provisional Authority to gauge Iraqi opinion. The survey found that more than half of Iraqis said they would be safer without U.S. forces there, while 63 percent said that conditions will improve once an Iraqi government formally takes over on June 30.
But the two Kerry advisers yesterday offered a gloomier assessment of peace prospects in Iraq under Mr. Bush’s policies.
“What we need is reality, not rhetoric. The reality is that we are not on track, we do not have the support of the majority of the Iraqi people,” Mr. Perry said.
“It is also clear that turning over the government to the Iraqis on June 30 and holding elections next year” remained a high-risk proposition because “security could not be maintained by the Iraqis,” Mr. Perry said.
As to how Mr. Kerry would handle the situation in Iraq if he were to become president, both advisers indicated that his proposals remain unchanged. He wants a larger international force to ease the U.S. military burden there and a ground security and troop-training role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, they said.