WASHINGTON - In defending the Iraq war, leading Republican presidential contenders are increasingly echoing words and phrases used by President Bush in the run-up to the war that reinforce the misleading impression that Iraq was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In the May 15 Republican debate in South Carolina, Senator John McCain of Arizona suggested that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden would "follow us home" from Iraq -- a comment some viewers may have taken to mean that bin Laden was in Iraq, which he is not.
Former New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani asserted, in response to a question about Iraq, that "these people want to follow us here and they have followed us here. Fort Dix happened a week ago. "
However, none of the six people arrested for allegedly plotting to attack soldiers at Fort Dix in New Jersey were from Iraq.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney identified numerous groups that he said have "come together" to try to bring down the United States, though specialists say few of the groups Romney cited have worked together and only some have threatened the United States.
"They want to bring down the West, particularly us," Romney declared. "And they've come together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda, with that intent."
Assertions of connections between bin Laden and terrorists in Iraq have heated up over the last month, as Congress has debated the war funding resolution. Romney, McCain, and Giuliani have endorsed -- and expanded on -- Bush's much-debated contention that Al Qaeda is the main cause of instability in Iraq.
Spokespeople for McCain and Romney say the candidates were expressing their deep-seated convictions that terrorists would benefit if the United States were to withdraw from Iraq. The spokesmen say that even if Iraq had no connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda-inspired terrorists have infiltrated Iraq as security has deteriorated since the invasion, and now pose a direct threat to the United States.
But critics, including some former CIA officials, said those statements could mislead voters into believing that the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks are now fighting the United States in Iraq .
Michael Scheuer , the CIA's former chief of operations against bin Laden in the late 1990s, said the comments of some GOP candidates seem to suggest that bin Laden is controlling the insurgency in Iraq, which he is not.
"There are at least 41 groups [worldwide] that have announced their allegiance to Osama bin Laden -- and I will bet that none of them are directed by Osama bin Laden," Scheuer said, pointing out that Al Qaeda in Iraq is not overseen by bin Laden.
Nonetheless, many GOP candidates have recently echoed Bush's longstanding assertion that Iraq is the "central battlefront" in the worldwide war against Al Qaeda and have declared that Al Qaeda would make Iraq its base of operations if the United States withdraws -- notions that Scheuer said do not withstand scrutiny.
"The idea that Al Qaeda will move its headquarters of operation from South Asia to Iraq is nonsense," said Scheuer.
The belief that there is a clear connection between Iraq and the 9/11 attacks has been a key determinant of support for the war. A Harris poll taken two weeks before the 2004 presidential election found that a majority of Bush's supporters believed that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks -- a claim that Bush has never made. Eighty-four percent believed that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had "strong links" with Al Qaeda, a claim that intelligence officials have long disputed.
But critics have maintained that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney encouraged these ideas by using misleading terms to describe the threat posed by Iraq before the war.
Bush, for instance, repeatedly spoke of Hussein's support for terrorism -- which many Americans apparently took to mean that Hussein supported Al Qaeda in its jihad against the United States. The administration, however, sourced that claim to Hussein's backing of Palestinian terrorist groups targeting Israel.
Now, some GOP presidential candidates refer to "the terrorists" as one group, blurring distinctions between Al Qaeda, which has attacked the United States repeatedly, and groups that former intelligence officials say have not targeted the United States.
Romney said Friday: "You see, the terrorists are fighting a war on us. We've got to make sure that we're fighting a war on them."
Romney's comment in the earlier debate that "they've come together as Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda" struck some former intelligence officials as particularly misleading. Shia and Sunni, they said, are branches of Islam and not terrorist groups. There are an estimated 300 million Sunni Muslims in the Middle East, many of them fighting Al Qaeda.
"Are Shia and Sunni together? Is the Muslim Brotherhood cooperating with all these other groups? No," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst.
"There's a tendency to exaggerate in a debate," she added. "You push the envelope as far as you can."
No point has been emphasized more strongly at GOP debates than the link between the Iraq war and Al Qaeda. During the debates about war funding, GOP leaders have downplayed the role of sectarian violence in Iraq and emphasized the role of Al Qaeda.
On Friday, McCain called any attempt to cut Iraq war funding, "the equivalent of waving a white flag to Al Qaeda."
But specialists say that the enemy the military calls "Al Qaeda Iraq" is a combination of Iraqi jihadists and an unknown number of fighters from countries throughout the Middle East. "AQI" came together after the US invasion. And while there is evidence that AQI members coordinate attacks among themselves, there is little evidence that they coordinate closely with bin Laden.
In pressing his case for continued war funding, Bush last week said a previously classified intelligence report indicated that bin Laden had sent a messenger in early 2005 to urge the late Iraqi terrorist chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to aim more attacks at the United States.
But there is no further evidence that bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, exerts control over Al Qaeda Iraq, according to a senior military official in Baghdad in an interview last week.
"We don't have any direct information that would link Al Qaeda Iraq to getting e-mails, memos, whatever, from bin Laden," the military official said, speaking under condition of anonymity.
A McCain spokesman said the senator did not mean to suggest in his debate comments that bin Laden was in Iraq. But aides to Romney and McCain, in interviews, insisted that the candidates are not exaggerating when they speak of bin Laden and the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq.
"The larger point shouldn't be in dispute," said Randy Scheunemann , McCain's foreign policy adviser. "If there's a territory where Al Qaeda is left unmolested, free to plan, conduct, and train for operations, they will do so."
Romney's national press secretary, Kevin Madden, said the former governor's linking of Shia, Sunni, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood was based on their common hostility to the West. "I think [Romney's statement] was much more directed at intent -- they all share a common ideology or intent to bring down Western governments," Madden said. "There's a shared attempt to fight any beachhead of democracy in that region."
Analysts say that Hamas and Hezbollah are participating in democratic governments and that the leaders of Shi'ite militias are part of the Iraqi government.
"All of the bad actors in the Middle East get mixed up in people's minds," said Andrew Kohut , director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, which has polled extensively on views on Iraq. "That's why it was easy to play on the perception that Saddam Hussein got together with Osama bin Laden and said 'Let's fly some planes into buildings.' Saddam Hussein was seen as a bad guy in the Middle East, and so it all gets jumbled up in people's thinking."
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