President Bush yesterday shared previously classified information — that Osama bin Laden has asked al Qaeda operatives in Iraq to plan attacks on American soil — as evidence that U.S. troops in Iraq are defending U.S. national security.
“However difficult the fight in Iraq has become, we must win it,” Mr. Bush said during a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. “Al Qaeda is public enemy No. 1 for Iraq’s young democracy. Al Qaeda is public enemy No. 1 for America as well.”
“9/11 taught us that to protect the American people, we must fight the terrorists where they live, so that we don’t have to fight them where we live,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush also rejected comparisons between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War.
“There are many differences between the two conflicts, but one stands out above all. The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland. The enemy in Iraq does.”
Democrats in Congress want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, although they backed down this week from including a withdrawal timeline in an emergency war-funding bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the president’s speech was properly focused on al Qaeda but improperly focused on Iraq.
“The Bush administration has become distracted from fighting al Qaeda along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding,” Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Reid’s office cited a statement by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, who in February told the Senate Armed Services Committee that an al Qaeda attack “most likely would be planned and come out of the leadership in Pakistan.”
A senior intelligence official, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used, said Mr. McConnell’s testimony did not contradict Mr. Bush’s assertion that al Qaeda has planned attacks from Iraq.
Although bin Laden may be instructing al Qaeda operatives in Iraq, the attack is “still coming from Pakistan, even if it’s flowing through Iraq,” the intelligence official said.
The president will face another political test in September when Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is to brief Congress on progress from the surge of about 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
Mr. Bush said that U.S. intelligence and military units in 2005 foiled plans by al Qaeda in Iraq to start planning attacks on American soil.
In January 2005, Mr. Bush said, bin Laden told Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, to start planning attacks on the U.S. Bin Laden asked an al Qaeda operative, Hazma Rabia, to send Zarqawi “a briefing” about terrorist attacks in the U.S., and one top bin Laden deputy, Abu Farraj al-Libbi, suggested that Rabia go to Iraq to help Zarqawi.
Rabia was killed in 2005, and Zarqawi was killed last year. Al-Libbi was captured in May 2005 and is in CIA custody.
Despite these “blows to al Qaeda,” Mr. Bush said, the terrorist group “remains extremely dangerous.”