James Werrell

Bush still dissembling about al-Qaida in Iraq

There he goes again. President Bush apparently believes that repeating over and over again that the insurgency in Iraq is linked to the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked us on 9-11 will make it so.

Bush was in Charleston July 24 to address about 200 Air Force personnel at the Charleston Air Force Base. He used the opportunity to once more try to tie the al-Qaida group now operating in Iraq to the one responsible for the 9-11 attacks.

"The facts are that al-Qaida terrorists killed Americans on 9-11, they're fighting us in Iraq and across the world, and they are plotting to kill Americans here at home again. Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of al Qaida in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat."

That is, at best, misleading. As a justification for continuing the war in Iraq, it is deplorable.

More than three years ago, the congressional Sept. 11 commission, after reviewing all relevant classified information, concluded that there was no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida and that Iraq played no role whatsoever in the 9-11 attacks. That, of course, did not prevent the White House from continuing to assert that such a relationship did exist.

Vice President Dick Cheney came to be the most frequent and, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, the most adamant champion of this link. And both he and the president continued to use this false association to drum up support for the war.

The audience in Charleston heard the latest version. Bush has replaced the old song and dance about Iraq's involvement in 9-11 with a new story about a resurgent al-Qaida in Iraq aligned with Osama bin Laden.

But there is no evidence to suggest that this version has any credence either. First, al-Qaida did not exist in Iraq before the U.S. invasion. Since then, an organization of homegrown Sunni extremists and a few foreign operatives has formed, calling itself al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. While this group has sworn allegiance to bin Laden, there are no proven links with bin Laden's network.

Last month's national intelligence report, a summary of the joint analysis by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, found no evidence of a direct link between al-Qaida in Iraq and bin Laden, no evidence that he is directing the group's activities, no evidence that al-Qaida in Iraq poses a direct threat to the United States. The report stated that Shiite Muslim militias are a far bigger problem in Iraq than al-Qaida.

That is not to say Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida does not pose a threat to the United States. The same intelligence report that downplayed the al-Qaida threat in Iraq emphasized that bin Laden's organization may be as strong as it was six years ago.

But that group is not in Iraq; it is in the lawless tribal lands on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and, it seems increasingly likely, in Pakistan itself. That is where al-Qaida has regrouped and rebuilt its forces.

Why can't the president tell us the truth? Why do he, Cheney and members of his administration continue to perpetuate the false notion that Osama bin Laden somehow is running the insurgency in Iraq?

The answer to that may be that this administration has no other choice but to try to play on the fears of another terrorist attack to justify this misguided war. Bush has used that astoundingly cynical ploy for four years, so why not stick with what works?

The danger for Bush, however, is that the American people no longer seem to be buying it. It's time for the president to quit the fear mongering and admit the truth.

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