CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ President Bush on Tuesday lashed out at critics who say that al-Qaida's operation in Iraq is distinct from terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
``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,'' Bush said.
Citing security details he declassified for his speech, Bush described al-Qaida's burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to the United States. Bush accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.
``That's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying, 'He's probably just there to cash a check,''' Bush told troops at Charleston Air Force Base.
Bush is up against highly skeptical audiences with 18 months left in office. The public has largely lost faith in the war, Congress is weighing ways to end it, and international partners have fading memories of the 2001 attacks against the U.S.
In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush ``is trying to scare the American people into believing that al Qaida is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq.'' But Kerry said Bush presented no new evidence to back that up, and added: ``The president is picking the wrong rationale for this war. Al-Qaida is not the principal killer of American forces in Iraq.''
In broad strokes, Bush linked the Iraq war to an event that Americans remember deeply _ the Sept. 11 attacks, not the sectarian strife among Iraqis, which has caused some to question U.S. military involvement.
Al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden, orchestrated the terrorist strikes on the United States by turning hijacked airplanes into killing machines. That was almost six years ago. Now a fresh intelligence estimate warns that the United States is in a heightened threat environment, mainly from al-Qaida. The terror group is seizing upon its affiliate, al-Qaida in Iraq, to recruit members and organize attacks, the report found.
``I've presented intelligence that clearly establishes this connection,'' Bush said after spelling out details of foreign ties and leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Bush's critics argue just the opposite point _ that the war is not reducing the threat to America, but increasing it by swelling and unifying al-Qaida's numbers.
Al-Qaida had no active cells in Iraq when the U.S. invaded in March 2003, and its operation there is much larger now than before the war, U.S. intelligence officers say. The war itself has turned into a valuable recruiting tool for al-Qaida, senior intelligence officials concede. Bush denied that the war triggered al-Qaida's operations in Iraq.
Bush cited intelligence reporting that:
_Al-Qaida in Iraq was founded not by an Iraqi, but by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had deep relations with al-Qaida leaders. The president said Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces last year, set up operations with terrorist associates in Iraq long before U.S.-led forces arrived, and that in the violence and instability following Saddam Hussein's fall, was able to expand the ``size, scope and lethality'' of his operation. Zarqawi formally joined al-Qaida in 2004 and pledged allegiance to bin Laden, he said.
_The merger of bin Laden and Zarqawi in Iraq fostered ``prestige among potential recruits and financiers.'' Intelligence says the merger also gave al-Qaida senior leadership ``a foothold in Iraq to extend it's geographic presence and to plot external operations and to tout the centrality of the jihad in Iraq to solicit direct monetary support elsewhere.''
_Zarqawi was replaced by another foreigner, an Egyptian named Abu Ayub al-Masri, who has deep and long-standing ties with al-Qaida senior leadership. The president said that before Sept. 11, 2001, al-Masri spent time with al-Qaida in Afghanistan where he taught classes indoctrinating others in al-Qaida's radical ideology.
_Many of al-Qaida in Iraq's senior leaders are foreign terrorists. They include: a Syrian, who is al-Qaida in Iraq's emir in Baghdad; a Saudi who is al-Qaida in Iraq's top spiritual and legal adviser; an Eqyptian who fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s and has met with bin Laden; and a Tunisian, who is suspected of playing a key role in managing foreign fighters.
_Most of al-Qaida in Iraq's rank-and-file fighters and some of its leadership are Iraqi, but al-Qaida in Iraq is led largely by foreign terrorists loyal to bin Laden. ``Our intelligence community concludes that `al-Qaida and its regional node in Iraq are united in their overarching strategy' and they say they that al-Qaida's senior leaders and their operatives in Iraq `see al-Qaida in Iraq as part of al-Qaida's decentralized chain of command, not as a separate group.'''
For his setting, Bush chose Charleston Air Force Base, a vital launching point for cargo and military personnel headed to Iraq. He watched crates of supplies being loaded onto a C-17 at the base, which ships thousands of tons of cargo to front-line troops.
Accompanying Bush was Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a notable defender of the president's policies in Iraq. Such GOP support for Bush in the Senate has been eroding. Still, Bush has rebuffed attempts to pull troops out of Iraq. He says he will not consider a change in strategy until receiving an updated military assessment in September.
The president came to this same military airlift hub in South Carolina nine months ago, when he touted plans for victory in Iraq in a campaign stop. Before leaving, Bush met privately with families of the Charleston firefighters killed while battling a blaze in a furniture warehouse in June. Upon returning to the White House, Bush is meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, a key U.S. ally.