WASHINGTON -- President Bush brought up al-Qaida 14 times today in a 26-minute speech marking the anniversary of the Iraq war. He wasn't coy about his point: If America stops fighting in Iraq, there could well be new attacks at home by Osama bin Laden's terror network.
"Defeating this enemy in Iraq will make it less likely that we'll face the enemy here at home," Bush said.
Conversely, he added: "To allow our enemies to prevail in Iraq ... would be to ignore the lessons of September the 11th and make it more likely that America would suffer another attack like the one we experienced that day."
Administration efforts to link Iraq and al-Qaida and Iraq and Sept. 11 have waxed and waned ever since the 2001 attacks.
Evidence has accumulated from inside and outside the Bush administration that Iraq's prewar government led by Saddam Hussein did not collaborate with al-Qaida or have any involvement in the 2001 attacks, as was suggested before the invasion and for some time after. This has stopped some -- but not all -- assertions by administration officials, such as Vice President Dick Cheney, of links between Saddam's Iraq and the terrorist network.
It has not stopped talk about al-Qaida's role in Iraq now. Bush offered plenty on Wednesday.
"The terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad want to murder the innocent in the streets of America."
In talking about al-Qaida in his address, Bush never used the actual name -- al-Qaida in Iraq -- of the shadowy Sunni-based extremist group that, though weakened, still operates as a major killer there. By only referring to "al-Qaida," he was suggesting that the Iraq group and bin Laden's al-Qaida are one and the same.
The Iraq insurgency is believed to be foreign-led and pledges loyalty to the international terrorist network. But though the terms are often used interchangeably, particularly by military or administration officials, there is little or no evidence of coordination between the two groups. Experts question how closely they are even associated.
Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said al-Qaida is no longer a single organization but is made up of increasingly separate groups with often unrelated funding and operations. He said the Iraq militants are "an extension of the al-Qaida brand" with only loose connections to the leadership hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"There's no reason to think the Iraq operation is a wholly-owned subsidiary while everyone else is autonomous," he said.
And Bush's assertion that Iraqi militants aim to wage attacks on American soil is questionable.
Al-Qaida in Iraq did not exist before the U.S. invasion. It is mostly homegrown, with its rank and file almost all Iraqis, and was created afterward to fight the American presence and establish an Islamic fundamentalist state in Iraq. There has been no evidence presented that the group is plotting or intends attacks outside of Iraq.
"Iraq has become the place where Arabs join with Americans to drive al-Qaida out. In Iraq, we're witnessing the first large-scale Arab uprising against Osama bin Laden, his grim ideology and his murderous network." Bush also said "there are more than 90,000 concerned local citizens who are protecting their communities from the terrorists and insurgents and the extremists."
The "Arab uprising" is a reference to a recent revolt by local Sunni Arabs against the al-Qaida in Iraq group and other extremists. Known as the "Anbar Awakening" because it was in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar province where Sunni tribesman first started joining the U.S. military to fight the terrorists, the movement has expanded to selected regions north and south of Baghdad.
But whether it represents "large-scale" opposition to bin Laden is difficult, if impossible, to prove.
The 90,000 number Bush cited comes from the latest quarterly Pentagon report on Iraq, issued last month. It refers to the so-called Sons of Iraq who are being paid by the United States to function as citizen guard groups. But the report said only about 71,000 are Sunni, with the remainder Shiites who are working with U.S. forces against extremist groups on their side of the sectarian divide.
Bush was referring not just to these U.S.-funded groups but also to the rejection of al-Qaida methods by the broader Sunni populace, said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
"The only way al-Qaida will ultimately be defeated is if Muslims reject the al-Qaida philosophy of hatred and death," Johndroe said. "That is what the Sunnis did in Anbar and that is why it is of such strategic importance."