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President Bush Calls Iraq Key in War on Terrorism

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President Bush Calls Iraq Key in War on Terrorism

President Bush Calls Iraq Key in War on Terrorism

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush took an unusually forceful swipe at his Democratic critics yesterday. He used his speech in Charleston, South Carolina to argue that the war in Iraq is, as he put it, the key theater in the war on terror. That's an argument he's made many times before. But the president has come under fire recently for portraying al-Qaida in Iraq as the same enemy that attacked the U.S. on 9/11.

So in his speech, the president laid out a detailed case linking Osama bin Laden's terror network to its offshoot in Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They know they are 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.

MONTAGNE: Joining us now to talk about that is NPR intelligence correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What evidence did the president gave to link al-Qaida in Iraq with al-Qaida's central leadership?

KELLY: Well, what he did in this speech was try to walk through the founding of al-Qaida in Iraq by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whom the president stressed was a Jordanian. He described how even after Zarqawi was killed, he was replaced by another foreigner, an Egyptian. He talked about how many of al-Qaida's other senior leaders today are foreigners. So the point that he was trying to make is that al-Qaida in Iraq is not merely an Iraqi phenomenon and therefore an Iraqi problem, but that it's actually part of the global terror problem and therefore, as the president sees it, that the U.S. cannot pull out of Iraq without undermining the overall war on terror.

MONTAGNE: Well, it seems like one of the striking things about that speech is how many times the president mentioned al-Qaida. And he seemed to be insisting that al-Qaida is the problem in Iraq.

KELLY: He did. In fact, he said so explicitly. And I've got another line from this speech that we can just listen to here.

Pres. BUSH: Al-Qaida is public enemy number one for the Iraqi people. Al-Qaida is public enemy number one for the American people. And that is why, for the security of our country, we will stay on the hunt. We'll deny them safe haven, and we will defeat them where they have made their stand.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: So the president arguing - he went on to argue, for example, that foreign terrorists in al-Qaida in Iraq account for most of the suicide bombings in Iraq, which is true. That said, it's believed that al-Qaida in Iraq accounts for only about 15 percent of the overall violence in the country. And what most people who follow Iraq will tell you is that the situation there is a lot more complicated than just al-Qaida. I think the question here is do you believe, as the president does, that U.S. troops in Iraq are there fighting a terror network led by Osama bin Laden, or do you believe that U.S. troops in Iraq, at this point, are in the middle of an Iraqi civil war? Which is the argument many Democrats would make.

MONTAGNE: And the president didn't address the whole question of whether al-Qaida existed before the invasion of Iraq - al-Qaida in Mesopotamia.

KELLY: He actually - he touched on that, which is another argument that many Democrats and critics of the president would make. He dismissed the argument that - he said, basically, it's flawed logic to say that terrorism is caused by American actions. He pointed out the U.S. wasn't in Iraq when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center the first time around, in '93. Of course, America was not in Iraq when it was attacked on 9/11.

MONTAGNE: And then, the timing here - is the president feeling the need, at this point, to deliver a speech linking the two al-Qaida groups because he's getting quite a lot of pressure from Democrats in their various campaigns?

KELLY: I think so. I think it's obviously linked to the fierce debate underway here in Washington. It's also linked to this new National Intelligence Estimate which came out last week, and which really focused on the al-Qaida group in Pakistan. It put the emphasis in terms of the core leadership in Pakistan as the one that clearly poses the greatest threat to the U.S. So that's something clearly the president is under pressure to address.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's intelligence correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly.

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