Bush turns up rhetoric in the antiterror fight

Posted in United States | 07-Oct-05 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush speaks to the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, DC.
WASHINGTON Amid fresh signals of displeasure with his handling of the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush used some of his toughest language Thursday to argue that the war was vital to a critical struggle against terrorists, who he said aimed to build a "totalitarian empire" of global reach.

Islamic radicals, Bush said, were attempting to "enslave whole nations and intimidate the world."

He said the United States and its partners had disrupted at least 10 serious Qaeda plots in recent years - 3 of them in the United States - and had blocked 5 attempts to survey targets or infiltrate the country.

Bush did not elaborate. But later, the president's chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, said that he thought Bush had been referring partly to the arrests of an American citizen, Jose Padilla, in Chicago in 2002, and of a Pakistani immigrant, Iyman Faris, in Ohio, in 2003.

Padilla is accused of conspiring with Al Qaeda to commit terrorist acts inside the United States; Faris of planning with Al Qaeda to bomb the Brooklyn Bridge and an Ohio shopping mall. McClellan said that information on other events alluded to by Bush might be classified.

In a somber 40-minute speech to the National Endowment for Democracy, the president clearly sought to underscore the sweep and high stakes of the antiterror fight. It is a topic on which, in the past, he has enjoyed some of his strongest public support and one to which he returns frequently.

But on Thursday, he did so with the war in Iraq becoming increasingly unpopular, dividing even Bush's own Republican Party, with the public increasingly focused on problems at home and with Iraq's political evolution approaching a critical juncture. The increasing restiveness over the war was placed in sharp relief when the Senate voted resoundingly, 90 to 9, for a measure to prevent mistreatment of prisoners held by the U.S. military. The White House had opposed the measure, saying it could complicate the fight against terror.

In stark terms, Bush portrayed a terrorist threat of vast reach, led or inspired by Al Qaeda and aiming not only to drive the United States from Iraq but to push far beyond.

"The militants believe that controlling one country will rally the Muslim masses, enabling them to overthrow all moderate governments in the region and establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia."

He also used harsh language in referring to Syria and Iran, saying they were "allies of convenience" with Islamic radicals intent on harming the United States. Bush said those two governments "use terrorist propaganda to blame their own failures on the West and America and on the Jews."

Bush was adamant in arguing that the United States must remain in Iraq until the country has gained sufficient stability. There is concern in the administration about the outcomes of an Oct. 15 constitutional referendum in Iraq and a parliamentary election set for two months later.

The president's speech followed similar warnings from top U.S. generals and Vice President Dick Cheney. They have argued that Iraq is a vital bulwark against a global terror threat and that any premature American withdrawal would hand terrorists an enormous victory. The war there has become increasingly unpopular, according to opinion polls.

Democrats later said Bush had fallen short of White House promises of a major speech with "unprecedented detail."

The Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, offered a toughly worded analysis of the speech Thursday. He said Bush "continued to falsely assert there is a link between the war in Iraq and the tragedy of Sept. 11, a link that did not and does not exist."

The president sharply rejected a suggestion, hinted at even by some in the military, that the very deployment of a large U.S. force in Iraq was a catalyst for the insurgency. Some, he said, had claimed "that our presence in that country has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11th, 2001, and Al Qaeda attacked us anyway."

Reid said later: "The truth is, the administration's mishandling of the war in Iraq has made us less safe, and Iraq risks becoming what it was not before the war: a training ground for terrorists."

Bush spoke with what seemed controlled anger of militants who call Americans cowardly. "Let's be clear," he said. "It is cowardice that seeks to kill children and the elderly with car bombs, and cuts the throat of a bound captive, and targets worshipers leaving a mosque."

"Against such an enemy," he said, "there's only one effective response: We never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory."

Bush's comments, delivered at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center building, echoed warnings issued last week by General John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war in Iraq.

Abizaid said that Al Qaeda, the group behind the Sept. 11 attacks, aspired to drive U.S. forces from the Middle East, to destroy Israel, to seize Saudi Arabia and to create a safe haven. He called the group "one of the greatest dangers to this nation."