NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) _ President Bush portrayed the Iraq war as a battle between the U.S. and al-Qaida on Wednesday and shared nuggets of intelligence to contend Osama bin Laden was setting up a terrorist cell in Iraq to strike targets in America.
Bush, who faces a public weary of war and is at odds with Democrats in Congress over funding troops, said that while the Sept. 11 attacks occurred in 2001, Americans still face a major threat from terrorists.
``In the minds of al-Qaida leaders, 9/11 was just a down payment on violence yet to come,'' 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 U.S. 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,'' said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress, a think tank led by President Clinton's former chief of staff John Podesta.
The White House has repeatedly said the U.S. and its allies will be successful when the Iraqis can sustain, govern and defend themselves, yet Bush used his speech to stress the threat from al-Qaida activities in Iraq.
``Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: He calls the struggle in Iraq a `war of destiny,''' 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 Bush cited in his speech described terrorism plots already revealed. But he declassified information to flesh out details and highlight U.S. successes in foiling planned attacks orchestrated by bin Laden, the al-Qaida boss.
``Victory in Iraq is important for Osama bin Laden, and victory in Iraq is vital for the United States of America,'' Bush told the graduating class seated in a stadium under bright sunshine along the Thames River.
Bush said intelligence showed that in January 2005, bin Laden tasked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, his senior operative in Iraq, to organize a terrorist cell and use Iraq as a staging ground for attacking the United States.
This information expanded on a classified bulletin the Homeland Security Department issued in March 2005 to state homeland security officials. The bulletin, which warned that bin Laden had enlisted al-Zarqawi to plan potential strikes in the United States, was described at the time as credible but not specific. It did not prompt the administration to raise its national terror alert level.
Bush said that in the spring of 2005, bin Laden also instructed Hamza Rabia, a senior operative, to brief al-Zarqawi on an al-Qaida plan to attack sites outside Iraq.
``Our intelligence community reports that a senior al-Qaida leader, Abu Faraj al-Libi, went further and suggested that bin Laden actually send Rabia, himself, to Iraq to help plan external operations,'' Bush said. ``Abu Faraj later speculated that if this effort proved successful, al-Qaida might one day prepare the majority of its external operations from Iraq.''
Bush said another suspected al-Qaida operative, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, was training in poisoning at a camp in Afghanistan and was dispatched to the United States before the Sept. 11 attacks to ``serve as a sleeper agent ready for follow-on attacks.''
U.S. intelligence asserts that al-Marri, who was captured in December 2001, discussed with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, potential assaults on the New York Stock Exchange, water reservoirs and U.S. military academies, Bush said.
Bush said bin Laden attempted to send a new commander to Iraq, an Iraqi-born terrorist named Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. Al-Iraqi, who was al-Qaida's top commander in Afghanistan, was captured last year and recently transferred to Guantanamo Bay.
Democrats and other critics have accused Bush of selectively declassifying intelligence, including portions of a sensitive National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, to justify the U.S.-led invasion on grounds that Saddam Hussein's government possessed weapons of mass destruction. That assertion proved false.
Rand Beers, national security adviser to John Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, contended Wednesday 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 the U.S. 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,'' Beers said.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, 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 U.S. custody.
In May 2005, al-Libi was captured. Several months later, in December 2005, al-Rabia was killed in Pakistan. In June of 2006, al-Zarqawi was killed in Iraq in a U.S. airstrike.
Actually, making the new information public earlier might have allowed Bush to use it to his political advantage, 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.