FORT LEWIS, Wash. — President Bush, under fire from critics who say he exaggerated ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, yesterday reiterated his post-September 11 doctrine that warns states harboring terrorists that they are subject to attack.
“I laid out a new doctrine which said if you harbor a terrorist, you are just as guilty as the terrorists,” Mr. Bush said to hundreds of enthusiastic soldiers at this base near Seattle. “When the president of the United States speaks, he must mean what he says.”
Mr. Bush also pointed out that Abu Musab Zarqawi, an associate of Osama bin Laden’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds in post-Saddam Iraq, was given safe haven and medical treatment in Iraq before the war began.
Zarqawi also is believed to be responsible for the beheading of American contractor Nicholas Berg in May.
“By the way, he was the fellow who was in Baghdad at times, prior to our arrival,” Mr. Bush said. “He was operating out of Iraq. He was an al Qaeda associate.”
The president’s critics, including Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, have accused the Bush administration of having “misled” the country about the justifications for the Iraq war.
The Bush administration also contended that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons that could be passed on to terrorists for strikes in the United States but, so far, large caches of such weapons have not been discovered.
Mr. Bush had a strong ally on the stage with him to help defend the war — Arizona Sen. John McCain, who Mr. Bush defeated in a hotly contested presidential primary in 2000.
Mr. McCain, a Vietnam War veteran who the Kerry campaign tried to woo to the vice president’s slot on the Democratic ticket, stood by Mr. Bush on the threat posed by Saddam and his overall execution of the war on terror.
“The events of September 11, 2001, beyond the immeasurable grief and suffering it caused for thousands of American families, was a battle cry that summoned America to a war we vaguely knew was going on but hadn’t really comprehended how near the threat was and how atrocious were the purposes and plans of our enemies,” Mr. McCain said.
Many news media outlets reported the findings of the commission examining the September 11 attacks as debunking links between Saddam and al Qaeda, but the commission’s two chairmen said that coverage was wrong.
“I must say I have trouble understanding the flap over this,” commission co-chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat, said Thursday. “The vice president is saying, I think, that there were connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s government. We don’t disagree with that.”
The fresh political assault on Mr. Bush’s handling of the war on terror comes at a time when the president’s poll numbers are on the rise.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed Mr. Bush received a boost in public opinion in the wake of the death of President Ronald Reagan, a conservative icon. His personal approval rating, taken during the weeklong state funeral, rose from 44 percent to 50 percent.