WASHINGTON — Struggling to stem growing opposition to his Iraq policy even among Republicans, President Bush contended anew Tuesday that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States are the same as al Qaida in Iraq, a violent Iraqi insurgent group that didn't exist until after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
It was the second time in two weeks that Bush has made the link in an apparent attempt to transform lingering fear of another U.S. terrorist attack into backing for the current buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Al Qaida is doing most of the spectacular bombings, trying to incite sectarian violence," Bush told a business group in Cleveland, Ohio. "The same people that attacked us on September the 11th is a crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children, many of whom are Muslims."
Al Qaida in Iraq didn't emerge until 2004. While it is inspired by Osama bin Laden's violent ideology, there's no evidence that the Iraq organization is under the control of the terrorist leader or his top aides, who are believed to be hiding in tribal regions of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.
Moreover, the two groups have been divided over tactics and strategy.
While U.S. intelligence and military officials view al Qaida in Iraq as a serious threat, they say the main source of violence and instability is an ongoing contest for power between majority Shiites and Sunnis, who dominated Saddam Hussein's regime.
Bush's speech came as Democrats in the Senate mounted a drive for legislation that would mandate a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal or set the stage for a pullout.
Four key Republican senators have broken with Bush over Iraq, and more could desert after the administration sends a report to Congress at week's end that is expected to chart slight improvements in security, but virtually none on political measures aimed at reconciling rival religious and ethnic groups.
In his speech, Bush cited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the motivation behind the continuing war in Iraq. "They will kill a Muslim, a child or a woman at a moment's notice to achieve a political objective," Bush said. "They are dangerous people that need to be confronted, and that's why since Sept. 11 our policy has been to find them and defeat them overseas so we don't have to face them here at home again."
Before the war, the president and his aides cited Iraq's alleged illegal chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs to justify the ouster of Saddam, who administration officials asserted also had ties to al Qaida.
No such programs were found, however, and U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Saddam also had no operational links to al Qaida.