WASHINGTON—It's become President Bush's mantra, his main explanation for why he won't withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq anytime soon.
In speech after speech, in statement after statement, Bush insists that "this is a war in which, if we were to leave before the job is done, the enemy would follow us here."
The line, which Bush repeated Wednesday in a speech to troops at California's Fort Irwin, suggests a chilling picture of warfare on American streets.
But is it true?
Military and diplomatic analysts say it isn't. They accuse Bush of exaggerating the threat that enemy forces in Iraq pose to the U.S. mainland.
"The president is using a primitive, inarticulate argument that leaves him open to criticism and caricature," said James Jay Carafano, a homeland security and counterterrorism expert for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy organization. "It's a poor choice of words that doesn't convey the essence of the problem—that walking away from a problem doesn't solve anything."
U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic experts in Bush's own government say the violence in Iraq is primarily a struggle for power between Shiite and Sunni Muslim Iraqis seeking to dominate their society, not a crusade by radical Sunni jihadists bent on carrying the battle to the United States.
Foreign-born jihadists are present in Iraq, but they're believed to number only between 4 percent and 10 percent of the estimated 30,000 insurgent fighters—1,200 to 3,000 terrorists—according to the Defense Intelligence Agency and a recent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center.
"Attacks by terrorist groups account for only a fraction of insurgent violence," said a February DIA report.
While acknowledging that terrorists could commit a catastrophic act on U.S. soil at any time—whether U.S. forces are in Iraq or not—the likelihood that enemy combatants from Iraq might follow departing U.S. forces back to the United States is remote at best, experts say.
James Lewis, a U.S. foreign policy analyst at CSIS, called Bush's assertion oversimplistic, but added that there's a slight chance a few enemy combatants could make their way to the United States after a U.S. troop withdrawal.
"There's a grain of truth in Bush saying it's better to fight them there rather than here, but it's also overstated," Lewis said. "It's not like there's going to be gun battles in the United States."
Daniel Benjamin, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank, agreed.
"There are very few foreign fighters who are going to be leaving the area because they don't have the skills or languages that would give them access to the United States," said Benjamin, who served as the National Security Council's director for transnational threats from 1998 to 1999. "I'm not saying events in Iraq aren't going to embolden jihadists. But I think the president's formulations call for a leap of faith."
"The war in Iraq isn't preventing terrorist attacks on America," said one U.S. intelligence official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he's contradicting the president and other top officials. "If anything, that—along with the way we've been treating terrorist suspects—may be inspiring more Muslims to think of us as the enemy."
Carafano and Lewis believe that a U.S. troop pullout would embolden Islamic jihadists, but that they're much more likely to stay closer to home and spread violence to neighboring countries with poor records of combating terrorism, such as Somalia, Morocco, Algeria and perhaps Egypt, than they are to try to penetrate America.
Increased terrorism in those places would tax the United States, which would have to deal with the economic costs, global refugees and health crises that combat in those countries could produce.
"The danger is not that they'll follow us home," Carafano said. "The problems will come to our doorstep, not the terrorists."
Lewis of CSIS believes that a U.S. pullout could prompt some foreign fighters in Iraq to go home, head to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces there or move to Europe, where Muslim anger is high and there are more Muslim communities to blend into.
"The United States is a distant (fourth)," he said.