CHARLESTON, S.C. — President Bush yesterday lashed out at critics who say Al Qaeda's operation in Iraq is distinct from terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001.
"The merger between Al Qaeda and its Iraqi affiliate is an alliance of killers, and that is why the finest military in the world is on their trail," Mr. Bush said.
Citing security details he declassified for his speech, Mr. Bush described Al Qaeda's burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to America. Mr. Bush accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.
"That's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying, ‘He's probably just there to cash a check,"' Mr. Bush told troops at Charleston Air Force Base.
Mr. Bush is up against highly skeptical audiences with 18 months left in office.
The public has largely lost faith in the war, Congress is weighing ways to end it, and international partners have fading memories of the 2001 attacks against America.
In broad strokes, Mr. Bush linked the Iraq war to an event that Americans remember deeply — the September 11 attacks, not the sectarian strife among Iraqis, which has caused some to question American military involvement.
Mr. Bush's critics argue that the war is not reducing the threat to America, but increasing it by swelling and unifying Al Qaeda's numbers.
Al Qaeda had no active cells in Iraq when America invaded in March 2003, and its operation there is much larger now than before the war, American intelligence officers say. The war itself has turned into a valuable recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, senior intelligence officials concede. Mr. Bush denied that the war triggered Al Qaeda's operations in Iraq.
Mr. Bush cited intelligence reporting that Al Qaeda in Iraq was founded not by an Iraqi, but by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had deep relations with Al Qaeda leaders.
The president said Zarqawi, who was killed by American forces last year, set up operations with terrorist associates in Iraq long before American-led forces arrived, and that in the violence and instability following Saddam Hussein's fall, was able to expand the "size, scope and lethality" of his operation. Zarqawi formally joined Al Qaeda in 2004 and pledged allegiance to Mr. bin Laden, he said.