Bush pushes Iraq-Sept. 11 link at S.C. visit

President Bush makes his way through the buffet line during a visit to Charleston Air Force Base in North Charleston on Tuesday.
President Bush makes his way through the buffet line during a visit to Charleston Air Force Base in North Charleston on Tuesday.

NORTH CHARLESTON -- President Bush used his Tuesday visit to South Carolina to draw a direct connection between the al-Qaida terrorist network in Iraq and the 9-11 attacks on the United States.

Bush, speaking to about 200 Air Force personnel at the Charleston Air Force Base, laid out the lineage of a terrorist network he said traces from the forces killing American troops in Iraq, to the 2006 death of sectarian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to the infamous attack on New York City and to Osama bin Laden.

Democrats disputed the claim.

"Despite what the president would like us to believe, it has been established that al-Qaida had no active cells in Iraq when we invaded, and we have long known that we were not attacked from Iraq on 9-11," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "Saying otherwise does not make it so."

Bush said anyone who concludes terrorist forces at work in Iraq are not the same as those terrorists who attacked on 9-11 is using "flawed logic."

Bush, citing new intelligence, said al-Qaida in Iraq was created by bin Laden loyalists to stop American military forces and stamp out all vestiges of "moderation" in Iraq.

"Terrorists want to use Iraq as a safe haven to launch attacks on America," Bush said.

The president said leaving Iraq now could lead to an increase in violence that would engulf the entire Middle East.

"However difficult the fight in Iraq, we must win it," Bush said.

The president arrived in Charleston the day after the third Democratic presidential debate was held here, in which the war in Iraq was a central theme.

Democrats and a rising chorus of Republicans have urged the president to bring the troops home. But White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush's timing to go on an offensive over the Iraq war was not due to the Democrats' sharpening criticism of the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Bush urged Democrats and Republicans to give a 20,000-man troop surge in Iraq more time.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson charged in Monday's debate, held at The Citadel, that American troops are "targets" in Iraq, which thwart American diplomatic efforts to end the war.

Bush traveled to Charleston at the invitation of Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Bush ally.

Graham has been under fire in his home state recently for his support of an unpopular immigration bill, which failed to win Senate passage two weeks ago and left a big split in the Republican Party.

Bush called Graham "one of the true stalwarts of freedom" who understands the mission in Iraq.

Graham, who has stood behind Bush on the Iraq war, again threw his support behind the president.

"The president is firmly resolved in his mind that Iraq is a part of a global struggle, and we will not leave until we can leave with honor," Graham said.

Gen. George Petraeus, the Army general in charge of the American military in Iraq, is scheduled to make a report on progress in the war in September. Those on both sides of the war issue have drawn a circle around that date as a possible turning point in strategy on the war.

Graham said the Petraeus report likely will show a mixed result of military progress and many challenges ahead.

Bush also took time Tuesday for a private visit with the families of the nine Charleston firefighters who died battling a furniture store blaze last month. Their deaths, which commanded national attention, marked the greatest firefighting tragedy in Charleston's history.

On the tarmac before leaving, Bush presented a replica of the Medal of Honor to Tuskegee Airman Earl Middleton of Orangeburg. Middleton, 88, was awarded the prestigious medal in March but could not attend the White House ceremony to receive it.