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The San Francisco Chronicle

9/11 Symbolism Murky Backdrop for Report on Iraq

Joe Garofoli

The nation will receive a long-awaited Pentagon report on the war in Iraq today - the day before the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Even though the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission said there was no credible connection between the terrorist attacks and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the anniversary of the attacks and the debate about what to do next in Iraq are once again blurring together in the media blender.

While Congress and the nation hear today from Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, television viewers in four states will see an anti-war ad featuring children dressed in military fatigues, training to be soldiers in an "endless war."

Part of a $12 million summerlong anti-war campaign funded by liberal organizations such as and private donors, the ad is running over the next week in four states represented by pro-war senators. It is focused partially at "security moms" - swing voters who supported Republicans in 2004 because the GOP appealed to their post-9/11 concerns, but who now may be disenchanted with the direction of the war. It never mentions Sept. 11. Instead, the ad's deep-voiced narrator warns that if Republican senators don't vote to stop the war, "Should we start training our children now?"

Meanwhile, a multi-spot, $15 million pro-war TV ad campaign continues across many of the same markets, with one showing the burning World Trade Center - an image that television networks rarely show. Produced by a conservative group fronted by former Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer, the ad is narrated by a disabled veteran who cautions viewers about the dangers of an unnamed "they." "They attacked us," the narrator says. "They won't stop in Iraq."

There's more. Liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald just released a new online video critiquing GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani's handling of Sept. 11 - the core of Giuliani's campaign. Greenwald calls the seven-minute piece - long by online video standards - part of an "investigative series." It shows the former New York mayor walking through the smoky chaos of lower Manhattan after the attacks.

These efforts reflect a continuing, perhaps permanent, war over the symbolism of 9/11, which analysts say is ironic given that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden intended his attack to have huge symbolic resonance.

"Everybody is using 9/11 for their partisan political purposes because it is the most potent symbol of our lifetime. Osama bin Laden uses it, George Bush uses it and a variety of interest groups," said Brown University political science Professor Darrell West. "The danger with that is it focuses the discussion on the emotional rather than the rational. People get so caught up in the emotions of what happened that day that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about Iraq or anything."

As for bin Laden, a new video surfaced last week from the still-at-large terrorism mastermind. Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., commented Friday on the video - as a means to address his support of the war in Iraq, which is central to his campaign.

"Al Qaeda terrorists and the violent, aggressive ideology they propagandize must be defeated across the globe, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, which bin Laden's top lieutenant calls al Qaeda's central battlefront against the United States," McCain said. "My presidency will be al Qaeda's worst nightmare."

Whenever bin Laden has released a video railing against Western "infidels," it has helped spread his aims - namely the removal of U.S. forces from the Middle East - with his core audience in the Muslim world.

Yet analysts say it gives the Bush administration and other Iraq war supporters a way to try to link the Iraq war to the terrorist attacks, creating a never-ending cycle of Sept. 11 spin and volley between bin Laden and Bush.

"The administration will point to the video and say, 'Look, there is a "link" between 9/11 and Iraq,' " said Joseph Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State University. "And who are the big losers in all this? The poor Iraqi people and the poor men and women in the U.S. armed forces."

Indeed, Bush said Saturday that bin Laden's video - which attacks the administration for starting the Iraq war - is a reminder of al Qaeda's ambitions in Iraq and of the "dangerous world in which we live."

"Iraq is part of this war against extremists," Bush said. "If al Qaeda bothers to mention Iraq, it's because they want to achieve their objectives in Iraq, which is to drive us out."

Even the video by the liberal anti-war group that doesn't mention 9/11 gets caught up in the false linkage, analysts say. "Just because it will be difficult for people to see those ads while they're experiencing the anniversary of 9/11 and not think about 9/11," Tuman said.

While Bush leveraged voter concerns about post-9/11 security during his re-election campaign, West doubted that the timing of today's Pentagon report would help the president politically.

"Bush hopes that it will help his cause, but the Iraq war has taken over 9/11 in terms of people's assessments of him," West said.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll in August found that 56 percent of the respondents thought history will remember Bush negatively for the job he has done pursuing terrorists after 9/11.

A July New York Times/CBS News poll found that 46 percent of the respondents felt that most of the people causing violence in Iraq today are not under the command of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda; 36 percent felt they were and 15 percent were unsure.

Yet recent polling from the Pew Research Center shows that many Americans see through the emotional attempts to link 9/11 to the Iraq war and realize the complexities of the situation in the Middle East.

In a recent report, Pew pollsters found that 58 percent see the chances of a civil war in Iraq increasing (only 6 percent foresaw a decrease), while 55 percent believe it to be more likely that al Qaeda would establish terror bases there. In an April Pew poll, 45 percent of the respondents said that if "the U.S. withdraws its troops while the situation in Iraq is still unstable, a terrorist attack on the U.S. would become more likely."

But the politicization of the Sept. 11 attacks shows no signs of abating, not as long as Bush can continue to benefit politically from it. Said Tuman: "He has to squeeze as much milk as he can out of that cow."

© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle

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