President George W. Bush tried to boost flagging support for the Iraq war on Wednesday by releasing details of alleged efforts by Osama bin Laden to plan attacks against the US from Iraq.
In a speech to the US Coast Guard Academy, Mr Bush outlined previously classified intelligence asserting that Mr bin Laden tasked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2005 with creating a terrorist cell in Iraq that would focus on plots to attack the US.
“Al-Qaeda is public enemy number one for Iraq’s young democracy, and al-Qaeda is public enemy number one for America,” Mr Bush said.
Amid moribund support for the war, Mr Bush is facing pressure from Republicans to demonstrate success by September, when General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, will provide a report on the “surge”.
Democrats pounced on the speech, which the White House intended to help convince Americans of the importance of staying the course in Iraq to protect the US from terrorism. Until recently, Bush administration officials had publicly cited sectarian violence as the biggest problem in Iraq.
“Intelligence analysts concluded long ago that Iraq has indeed become a training ground and recruiting poster for a new generation of terrorists,” said Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader.
General Joseph Hoar, the former head of US Central Command, said Mr Bush was returning to the tactic of instilling fear in the public by overstating the role of terrorists in Iraq. “It is important to note that there was never one [an al-Qaeda element in Iraq] prior to our invasion,” said Gen Hoar.
Richard Clarke, the former senior Bush administration counter-terrorism chief, accused Mr Bush of sending conflicting messages on the role of terrorists operating from Iraq.
“One day Bush tells us we are fighting in Iraq so that terrorists won’t come here, then he releases intelligence that says terrorists trained in Iraq are coming here. Which is it?” he said.
Frances Townsend, the White House counter-terrorism adviser, dismissed suggestions that the administration was playing politics by releasing the information. “Frankly, if political advantage was the name of the game, we would have gotten it out a lot sooner,” she said.
A USA Today/Gallup poll found that 50 per cent of Americans disapproved of the job Mr Bush was doing handling terrorism. A separate Associated Press-Ipsos poll found 64 per cent of respondents disapproved of his performance on Iraq.