CHARLESTON, S.C. -- President Bush presented his most detailed and lengthy argument yesterday that al-Qaida in Iraq is intimately tied to Osama bin Laden's terrorist operation as he sought to rebut his critics' assertion that the Iraqi group is not a threat to the security of the United States.
To those who argue that al-Qaida in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon and not part of the organization that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and is not intent on attacking the country again, Bush said, "That would be news to Osama bin Laden."
His remarks to about 300 troops at Charleston Air Force Base were based on what White House officials called newly declassified intelligence data and on repeated assertions that he and other officials have made in recent months in trying to rally support for the war.
To deny the evidence that he gave, Bush said, is akin to seeing a masked gunman enter a bank and saying, "He's really there just to cash a check."
Calling al-Qaida in Iraq "Public Enemy No. 1," Bush said the organization is determined to "take its jihad beyond Iraq's borders."
Bush noted the founding of al-Qaida in Iraq by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had "long-standing relations with senior al-Qaida leaders" and who in 2004 "pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden" and promised to follow bin Laden's jihad orders.
"It's hard to argue that al-Qaida in Iraq is separate from bin Laden's al-Qaida when the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq took an oath of allegiance to Osama bin Laden," Bush said. "According to our intelligence community, the Zarqawi-bin Laden merger gave al-Qaida in Iraq, quote, 'prestige among potential recruits and financiers.'
"The merger also gave al-Qaida's senior leadership, quote, 'a foothold in Iraq' to extend its geographic presence, to plot external operations and to tout the centrality of the jihad in Iraq to solicit direct monetary support elsewhere.
"The merger between al-Qaida and its Iraqi affiliate is an alliance of killers, and that is why the finest military in the world is on their trail."
American forces killed al-Zarqawi in 2006. He was replaced, Bush said, by an Egyptian, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who had "deep and long-standing" ties to senior al-Qaida leadership.
At the time, bin Laden dispatched a senior deputy to aid al-Masri, but the aide was captured and has been sent to the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Critics, Bush said, want to paint the battle in Iraq as a distraction from the war on terrorism so that they can argue that a withdrawal from Iraq would not undermine the war on terrorism.
"The problem they have is with the facts," Bush said. "We are fighting al-Qaida in Iraq. ... Americans can accept nothing less than complete victory."
Bush received the loudest applause when he said that Congress must "give Gen. David Petraeus the time and resources" to defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.
"We will stay on the hunt. ... We will deny them safe haven. ... We will defeat them," he said.
Democrats were sharply critical of the president's speech.
Calling Bush's case "a phony argument," Sen. John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said that "the principal threat" in Iraq is not al-Qaida but a civil war that pits Sunni against Shiite and an Iraqi government that is not joining the fight.
"All of us are committed to destroying al-Qaida," Kerry said, adding, "If we reduce our footprint [in Iraq] al-Qaida will reduce its footprint."
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said recent successes in Anbar province in repelling al-Qaida attacks demonstrate that the best way to defeat terrorism is for U.S. special forces to work with local leaders.
"The key struggle here is a political one," said Reed, who has visited Iraq frequently. Noting that the Iraqi government has been unable to enact an oil-sharing plan or implement other reform plans, Reed said it is time "to change our policy."
Bush said withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq "would be dangerous for the world and disastrous for America."
James Gerstenzang and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.