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Then Bush administration is considering keeping a substantial number of U.S. forces in Iraq, at least through the spring of 2009. Those troops would battle insurgents and provide security. The plan was reported in newspapers and confirmed today by the Pentagon.

President Bush flew to an air force base in South Carolina today where he said that the U.S. must continue to fight to win in Iraq. He says that an al-Qaida affiliate pledged to back Osama bin Laden is the primary enemy.

NPR's White House correspondent David Greene reports from Charleston, South Carolina.

DAVID GREENE: As soon as he landed at Charleston Air Force Base, President Bush took a look at two C-17 cargo planes that were ready to leave for Iraq tonight.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you for the tour. Nice, big airplanes carrying a lot of cargo. And it's good to see the amazing operations that take place here to keep our troop supply.

GREENE: The president spoke on the day when the Washington Post and ABC News released a poll showing 68 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the war in Iraq. The same poll had 62 percent of Americans saying they wanted Congress to take the lead in bringing U.S. troops home.

But in his speech today, the president returned to some old themes, insisting that American troops must fight in Iraq to protect the United States from al-Qaida - the people responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks.

Pres. BUSH: Some say that Iraq is not part of the broader war on terror. They complain when I say that the al-Qaida terrorists we face in Iraq are part of the same enemy that attacked us on September 11, 2001. They claim that the organization called al-Qaida in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon. That is independent of Osama bin Laden. And that it's not interested in attacking America. That would be news to Osama bin Laden.

GREENE: Mr. Bush suggested that his critics don't understand something that's well understood in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

Pres. BUSH: They know they're al-Qaida. The Iraqi people know they are al-Qaida. People across the Muslim world know they are al-Qaida. And there's a good reason they are called al-Qaida in Iraq. They are al-Qaida in Iraq.

GREENE: Back in Washington, senators reacted sharply to the president's remarks. This is democratic Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, a Vietnam paratrooper and West Point graduate.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): The president is trying, I believe, to magnify the presence and the impact of al-Qaida there as a way to rally this waning support. In doing so, he is choosing, as he has in the past, a slogan than a - over sound strategy, over realistic plans to deal with what's happening on the ground in Iraq.

GREENE: White House officials said the president's speech was based on newly declassified intelligence indicating that many of the worst attacks in Iraq have been carried out by this al-Qaida affiliate. Mr. Bush said today that means the Congress and the public should allow more time for the troop surge he ordered and for his top commander in Iraq, David Petraeus.

Pres. BUSH: For the security of our citizens and the peace of the world, we must get General Petraeus and his troops the time and the resources they need, so they can defeat al-Qaida in Iraq.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Mr. Bush's argument that al-Qaida must be defeated overwhelmingly in Iraq comes as the Pentagon is working on a plan that emphasizes having U.S. troops work with local leaders and militias more than with the Baghdad government. The plan's timeframe could surprise many lawmakers. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans - including the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky - have looked to this September as a time for a turning point in Iraq. But the President gave no hint today of any plans to begin pulling back.

David Greene, NPR News, Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina.

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