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Originally published May 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 24, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Bush plays up al-Qaida threat

President Bush ratcheted up his campaign to link the violence in Iraq to actions by al-Qaida, stressing in a commencement address Wednesday...

The Washington Post

NEW LONDON, Conn. -- President Bush ratcheted up his campaign to link the violence in Iraq to actions by al-Qaida, stressing in a commencement address Wednesday at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy that the terrorist network is the "most destructive force" undermining U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The notion that Iraq is a central front in the fight against terrorism is an old theme for Bush, but to highlight the point, Bush declassified 2-year-old intelligence offering details of the already-known relationship between Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the now-deceased leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The move revived accusations that the White House was politicizing intelligence through its selective release.

Speaking to graduating cadets, Bush said the intelligence -- much of it disclosed two years ago -- showed bin Laden assigned al-Qaida operative al-Zarqawi in January 2005 to form a cell to conduct attacks outside Iraq, with the U.S. the "No. 1 priority" as a target.

"Zarqawi welcomed this direction," Bush said. "He claimed that he had already come up with some good proposals."

Bush did not say whether the alleged cell became operational and, if so, what kind of plots it envisioned. But several lawmakers and counterterrorism officials said they knew of no instances in which al-Zarqawi-led operatives succeeded in entering the U.S.

"I've learned to be a little bit skeptical of the initial comments of the president on these things," said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's terrorism subpanel. "As the information comes out, we'll have to drill down to learn more about the specific threat, whether there was anything to it."

Bush said the intelligence community also reported that bin Laden asked another deputy, Hamza Rabia, to send al-Zarqawi a briefing on operations against the U.S. and that another deputy suggested bin Laden send Rabia to Iraq to plan attacks with al-Zarqawi.

That deputy, Abu Faraj al-Libi, later speculated that if this effort proved successful "al-Qaida might one day prepare the majority of its external operations from Iraq," Bush said.

Al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in June 2006.

Al-Qaida emphasis

Bush's speech was part of a recent White House effort to portray the violence in Iraq as primarily a function of al-Qaida, de-emphasizing the internal divisions within Iraq in the apparent hope of regaining political support for an endeavor that has become unpopular with the U.S. public.

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Military officials also have repeatedly attributed attacks in Iraq to al-Qaida or aligned groups while playing down the secular fighting that was the focus of a January National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.

This week, U.S. Central Command and the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) media officers issued several news releases about a bombing and raids that mention alleged links to the group al-Qaida in Iraq.

In his speech to graduates, Bush noted that bin Laden had tried to send a top operative, Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, to replace al-Zarqawi after he was killed, but al-Iraqi was captured and is jailed at the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. "There is a reason bin Laden sent one of his most experienced paramilitary leaders to Iraq," Bush said. "He believes that if al-Qaida can drive us out, they can establish Iraq as a new terrorist sanctuary."

The Vietnam factor

Bush rarely brings up Vietnam analogies, but on Wednesday he offered a comparison: "The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland," he said. "The enemy in Iraq does."

Outside intelligence and terrorism experts described Bush's speech as a self-serving release of old and known information.

"We now have several thousand al-Qaida operatives in Iraq, and they are there because of that invasion," said Daniel Benjamin, a Brookings Institution scholar and a Clinton White House counterterrorism official. He called the speech a "fairly desperate effort to build some support for the mission in Iraq."

Rand Beers, formerly the top Bush White House counterterrorism official who is now one of its vocal critics, said, "Yet again, the selective release of intelligence to buttress the notion that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism undermines the intelligence community and fails to make the case."

Beers said Bush was trying to portray Iraq as a base for al-Qaida's worldwide movement, when the organization is centered along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where a U.S. search has faltered.

The U.S. intelligence community has long believed bin Laden and Zarqawi wanted to export violence from Iraq, but after an al-Zarqawi-led bombing in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, there have been no more attacks.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, al-Zarqawi resisted direction from bin Laden and his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahri.

White House counterterrorism adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said that while the Department of Homeland Security issued a classified alert in 2005 containing some of the information released this week, Bush had never publicly acknowledged the information. "This one gives you a much greater breadth of detail than we knew at the time," she said.

At the March 3, 2005, ceremony for Michael Chertoff's swearing-in as homeland-security secretary, Bush spoke of bin Laden urging "Zarqawi to form a group to conduct attacks outside Iraq, including here in the United States."

Townsend and other officials said the information can now be released because al-Zarqawi and Rabia are dead and Abu Faraj has been captured, and the sources and methods involved in collecting the intelligence could no longer be compromised.

Post writer Walter Pincus and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report. Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

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