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Bush uses bin Laden to defend Iraq war policy

Story Highlights

• President draws comparison between Iraq and Vietnam wars
• Bush uses bin Laden intelligence to defend U.S. military presence in Iraq
• Bin Laden wanted to set up Iraq base for international attacks, White House says
Bush discusses foiled aviation plots against the U.S.

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NEW LONDON, Connecticut (CNN) -- President Bush used declassified intelligence about Osama bin Laden Wednesday to defend his Iraq war policy.

During a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, the president mentioned declassified intelligence that said bin Laden discussed sending a top lieutenant in 2005 to Iraq to set up a base from which to launch attacks in the United States.

"There's a reason bin Laden sent one of his most experienced paramilitary leaders to Iraq," Bush said. "He believes that if al Qaeda can drive us out, they can establish Iraq as a new terrorist sanctuary."

The president acknowledged that critics "question whether the fight in Iraq is part of the war on terror."

He said "the best way to protect our people is to take the fight to the enemy ... so we do not have to face them at home."

The president also made a comparison between Iraq and the Vietnam War, saying, "There are many differences between the two conflicts, but one stands out above all. The enemy in Vietnam had neither the intent nor the capability to strike our homeland. ... The enemy in Iraq does."

Bush said bin Laden warned the American people in January 2006 that "operations are under preparation and you will see them on your own ground once they are finished."

Among the planned terrorist plots Bush said have been thwarted was one last summer, a plot broken up by British authorities to blow up passenger airplanes as they were flying toward the United States, Bush said. It was disrupted "just two or three weeks away from execution," he said, citing "our intelligence community" as the source of his information.

"If it had been carried out, it could have rivaled 9/11 in death and destruction," he said.

Bush listed other alleged al Qaeda plots foiled since 9/11:

In December 2001, an operative was captured who had been trained in the use of poisons at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan and sent to the United States prior to 9/11 "to serve as a sleeper agent ready for follow-on attacks," Bush said.

The agent had been ordered to the United States by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is now in U.S. custody, Bush added.

"Our intelligence community believes that (Mohammed) brought (the operative) to meet Osama bin Laden, where he pledged his loyalty to the al Qaeda leader and offered himself up as a martyr," Bush said.

Among the potential targets the intelligence community believes the man discussed with Mohammed were water reservoirs, the U.S. Stock Exchange and military academies, Bush said.

The president cited two other post-9/11 alleged aviation plots -- the first devised by Mohammed in 2002 "to repeat the destruction of 9/11 by sending operatives to hijack an airplane and fly into the tallest building on the West Coast."

Mohammed allegedly told "a hearing in Guantanamo Bay" that the intended target was Library Tower in Los Angeles, Bush said.

And in 2003, another plot was uncovered and halted, this one intended to be another East Coast aviation attack in which multiple airplanes were to have been hijacked and then crashed into targets, he said.

Bush also said that, in 2005, bin Laden was working to set up a unit inside Iraq from which to launch attacks in other countries.

Bush credited "bold action at home and abroad" with foiling the plans.

Although the White House rejected suggestions that the revelations were timed for political purposes, Bush's address coincided with a push by Democrats in Congress to force an end to the U.S. military presence in the region. During May, 81 U.S. military personnel have died in the Iraq war, bringing the total to 3,432.

Bush vetoed a war-spending bill last month that included a timetable for withdrawing troops. But timetables have been dropped from revised war-spending legislation, substituting benchmarks with consequences for Iraqi leaders. Both Republicans and Democrats claimed victory Wednesday as revised war spending legislation moved forward. (Read more about the war funding bill)

White House details bin Laden plot

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said bin Laden and a top lieutenant -- Abu Faraj al-Libbi -- planned to form a terror cell in Iraq in order to launch attacks against the United States.

Al-Libbi was a "senior al Qaeda manager" who in 2005 suggested to bin Laden that bin Laden send Egyptian-born Hamza Rabia to Iraq to help plan attacks on American soil, Johndroe said.

Johndroe noted that bin Laden later suggested to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, that America should be his top priority. That was followed in the spring of 2005 with bin Laden's ordering Rabia to brief al-Zarqawi on plans to attack the United States, Johndroe said.

Johndroe added the intelligence indicates al-Libbi later suggested Rabia should be sent to Iraq to carry out those operations.

But al-Libbi was captured in Pakistan and taken into CIA custody in May 2005. After al-Libbi's capture, the CIA's former acting director, John McLaughlin, described him as bin Laden's chief operating officer, the No. 3 man in al Qaeda.

"Catching terrorists is sometimes like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without seeing the picture on the box," McLaughlin said at the time. "This is a guy who knows the picture on the box. He knows what the big picture is."

Al-Libbi is a Libyan who joined al Qaeda in the 1990s and fled to Pakistan after the United States invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. U.S. officials say al-Libbi was in contact with and directing alleged al Qaeda members in the United Kingdom who were planning attacks there and in the United States. He was also believed to be behind two 2005 attempts to assassinate Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

Rabia took over al-Libbi's position in the organization but was killed in in the North Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan near the Afghan border in December 2005.

Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. airstrike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

CNN's Ed Henry and Elaine Quijano contributed to this report.


President Bush delivers an address Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in Connecticut.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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