NEW LONDON, Conn. — President Bush portrayed the Iraq war as a battle between America and Al Qaeda yesterday and shared nuggets of intelligence to contend Osama bin Laden is setting up a terrorist cell in Iraq to strike targets in America.
Mr. Bush, who faces a public weary of war and is at odds with Democrats in Congress over funding troops, said that while the September 11 attacks occurred in 2001, Americans still face a major threat from terrorists.
"In the minds of Al Qaeda leaders, 9/11 was just a down payment on violence yet to come," Mr. Bush said during a commencement speech at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in which he defended his decision to order a troop buildup in Iraq. "It is tempting to believe that the calm here at home after 9/11 means that the danger to our country has passed."
"Here in America, we are living in the eye of a storm," he said. "All around us, dangerous winds are swirling, and these winds could reach our shores at any moment."
Critics of the war insist that American troops are in the middle of fights among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.
"As global terror threats remain very real, President Bush is sinking more money and sending more troops to referee Iraq's civil war, when those precious resources would be better spent in finishing the mission left unaccomplished in Afghanistan," a national security expert at the Center for American Progress think tank, Brian Katulis, said.
The White House has said repeatedly that America and its allies will be successful when the Iraqis can sustain, govern, and defend themselves, yet Mr. Bush used his speech to stress the threat from Al Qaeda activities in Iraq.
"Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: He calls the struggle in Iraq a ‘war of destiny,'" Mr. Bush said. "He proclaimed: ‘The war is for you or for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever.'"
Much of the intelligence information Mr. Bush cited in his speech described terrorism plots already disclosed. But he declassified information to flesh out details and highlight American successes in foiling planned attacks orchestrated by Mr. bin Laden, the Al Qaeda boss.
"Victory in Iraq is important for Osama bin Laden, and victory in Iraq is vital for the United States of America," Mr. Bush told the graduating class, seated in a stadium under bright sunshine along the Thames River.
Mr. Bush said intelligence showed that in January 2005, Mr. bin Laden tasked his senior operative in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to organize a terrorist cell and use Iraq as a staging ground for attacking America.
This information expanded on a classified bulletin the Homeland Security Department issued in March 2005. The bulletin, which warned that Mr. bin Laden had enlisted Zarqawi to plan potential strikes in America, was described at the time as credible but not specific. It did not prompt the administration to raise its national terror alert level.
Mr. Bush said that in the spring of 2005, Mr. bin Laden also instructed a senior operative, Hamza Rabia, to brief Zarqawi on an Al Qaeda plan to attack sites outside Iraq.
"Our intelligence community reports that a senior Al Qaeda leader, Abu Faraj al-Libi, went further and suggested that bin Laden actually send Rabia, himself, to Iraq to help plan external operations," Mr. Bush said. "Abu Faraj later speculated that if this effort proved successful, Al Qaeda might one day prepare the majority of its external operations from Iraq."
Mr. Bush said another suspected Al Qaeda operative, Ali Salih al-Mari, was training in poisoning at a camp in Afghanistan and dispatched to America before the September 11 attacks to "serve as a sleeper agent ready for follow-on attacks."
Mr. Bush said Mr. bin Laden attempted to send a new commander to Iraq, an Iraqi-born terrorist named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. Mr. Iraqi, who was Al Qaeda's top commander in Afghanistan, was captured last year and recently transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Democrats and other critics have accused Mr. Bush of selectively declassifying intelligence, including portions of a sensitive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to justify the American-led invasion on grounds that Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. That assertion proved false.
The national security adviser to John Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, Rand Beers, contended yesterday that the Bush administration was releasing intelligence to buttress the argument that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism while a number of intelligence sources say the most recent attacks or planned attacks against America and its allies have originated in Pakistan instead.
"Bin Laden is using Iraq to kill and demonize the United States while remaining secure and planning further operations in Pakistan," Mr. Beers said.
The White House homeland security adviser, Frances Fragos Townsend, said new details about the plots were declassified because the intelligence community had tracked all leads from the information and the players were either dead or in American custody.
In May 2005, Mr. Libi was captured. Several months later, in December 2005, Rabia was killed in Pakistan. In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed in Iraq in a U.S. airstrike.
Actually, making the new information public earlier might have allowed Mr. Bush to use it to his political advantage, Ms. Townsend said. "This is kind of late to be able to bring this to the game," she said, adding that intelligence officials needed time to exploit the information.