Experts Mull Bush's View on Iraq's Importance to Al Qaeda

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

( - Osama Bin Laden has been talking, and President Bush has been listening.

Counter-terrorism operations that have resulted in the death or capture of al-Qaeda operatives highlight the strategic importance Iraq occupies in the minds of terrorists, Bush said Wednesday.

Delivering a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, the president reported on intelligence pointing to ongoing coordination between bin Laden and al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.

He also focused on declassified intelligence information showing that the terrorist leader attempted to establish cells in Iraq capable of planning and organizing attacks on the U.S. and other countries. The U.S. has thwarted planned attacks on the homeland by staying on the offense in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, Bush said.

A foreign policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute Wednesday disputed the administration's central claims about Iraq.

There is no evidence to suggest Iraq would be transformed into a "caliphate" and a base of operations for al Qaeda should the U.S. withdraw, argued Christopher Preble, Cato's director of foreign policy studies.

"Most of the success against al Qaeda around the world has not come from the U.S. military," Preble said in an interview. "They have come from U.S. intelligence and from cooperation with foreign militaries and foreign governments."

Preble also said that when the president discusses progress against terrorism, he cites activities "that have nothing to do with Iraq."

Bush did comment in his speech on the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan and on post-9/11 plots targeting the American homeland.

"Terrorist plots against the U.S. have thus far not succeeded in part because we have taken bold action at home and abroad to keep our people safe," the president said. "We are determined to stop the world's most dangerous people from striking America with the world's most dangerous weapons."

He cited a planned 9/11-style attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles as an example of successful counter-terrorism. The plot was traced to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terrorist who has been described as the "9/11 mastermind."

Bush also discussed planned attacks involving multiple hijacked planes targeting building on the East Coast, which he noted had also been blocked.

But Preble argued that instead of pursuing operations in Iraq where the U.S. is fighting "on the [terrorists'] terms," the U.S. should pursue other approaches.

"We are in the middle of a civil war -- that's the one word the president didn't use," he said. "We are putting our troops in the impossible position of protecting both Sunnis and Shi'ites, even as al Qaeda is trying to raise sectarian tensions on both sides."

He said there was intense opposition to al Qaeda among the Iraqi people.

"I've never believed the president's contention that al Qaeda will succeed in establishing a government in Iraq that will spread terrorism and extreme ideology through the Muslim world," Preble said.

'Listen to the terrorists themselves'

But Tom Donnelly, resident fellow of defense and foreign policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), believes that critics who are unwilling to take Bush at his word should listen carefully to the words of bin Laden and others who, he said, prove the president's point.

"I'm really quite stunned people don't understand what the behavior and rhetoric of our enemies means," he told Cybercast News Service. "The central belief of the jihad movement is that the holy places of Islam, centered in the Arab Middle East, are the most strategically important part of their world."

Donnelly said there are signs that Bush's troops surge is having an impact at a time when al Qaeda's tactics are beginning to alienate both the Sunni and Shi'ite communities. Although the terror group purports to be defending Sunnis, he said, it has begun to attack them as well.

Donnelly noted that former Sunni insurgents are now cooperating with U.S. Marines in Anbar Province in coordinating attacks on al Qaeda. This development, he said, provides "incontrovertible evidence" that the terror group's esteem in public opinion is slipping.

A senior administration official, speaking on background during a conference call briefing Wednesday, maintained that al-Qaeda operatives who have been captured or killed demonstrate Iraq's strategic importance as a "central front in the war on terror."

For instance, bin Laden sent an Iraqi-born terrorist named Abd Al-Hadi from Afghanistan to Iraq, but al-Hadi was captured by the U.S. en route. He has been transferred to Guantanamo Bay.

The president in his address also referred to another senior al-Qaeda terrorist, Abu Faraj al-Libi, who was said to have speculated that the terror network "might one day prepare the majority of its external operations from Iraq." He was captured and taken into CIA custody in May 2005.

And Bush pointed to a report indicating that bin Laden had "tasked the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with forming a cell [within Iraq] to conduct terrorist attacks outside Iraq." Zarqawi was killed by American forces in Iraq last June.

The senior administration official said the president's speech was "dual-theme" in the sense that it aimed to "reflect success in the war on terror" while also pointing to the strategic implications of the mission in Iraq.

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