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Bush defends Iraq war; details al Qaeda threat

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  • NEW: "However difficult the fight is in Iraq, we must win it," Bush says
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CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, South Carolina (CNN) -- President Bush insisted that al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq are part of the same terrorist network, during a speech Tuesday at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina.

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President Bush said Tuesday that al Qaeda in Iraq is part of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

"Some say that Iraq is not a part of the broader war on terror," Bush said. "They claim that the organization called al Qaeda in Iraq is an Iraqi phenomenon -- that it's independent of Osama bin Laden and it's not interested in attacking America. That would be news to Osama bin Laden."

Bush made his case as a Democratically controlled Congress moves to set timetables for U.S. forces to pull out of the unpopular Iraq war and as the president's job-approval rating dips low in opinion polls.

"However difficult the fight is in Iraq, we must win it, and we can win it," Bush told members of the military who were clad in camouflage.

"Al Qaeda is in Iraq and they're there for a reason," Bush said. "Surrendering the future of Iraq for al Qaeda would be a disaster to our country." Video Watch Bush tie together al Qaeda and Iraq »

The president said "al Qaeda's top commander in Iraq" issued an audio statement saying "that he will not rest until he has attacked our nation's capital."

Ahead of the speech, a White House official said Bush would reveal "newly declassified information" about the links between al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq.

"I presented intelligence that clearly establishes this connection," said Bush. "The facts are that al Qaeda terrorists killed Americans on 9/11, they're fighting us in Iraq and across the world, and they're plotting to kill Americans here at home again."

The speech comes a week after a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate named al Qaeda "the most serious terrorist threat" to the U.S. homeland and said that al Qaeda in Iraq was the main group's "most visible and capable affiliate."

Bush traveled to the Air Force base in South Carolina a day after Democrats vying to succeed him held a debate in nearby Charleston. The war in Iraq was a major element of that debate, with the administration's management of the war the target of blistering criticism by its eight participants.

Critics of the war have complained about the administration's insistence that Iraq is the central front in the war on terrorism, saying the war has been a recruiting tool for terrorists. They say that the administration has erred in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban is fighting to regain control, and Pakistan, where both the Taliban and al Qaeda have tried to regroup.

Both the NIE and a separate intelligence assessment created for policymakers said that al Qaeda had regrouped and restrengthened in the tribal areas of Pakistan. See what previous reports have said »

"Iraq is not the central front in the war on terror," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Indiana, said Sunday on "Fox News Sunday." "As the National Intelligence Estimate indicates, it's Pakistan and Afghanistan. We've got to finish the job in Afghanistan. We were attacked from there. And Pakistan is where the al Qaeda leadership is reconstituting itself today."

"We've turned Iraq into a training ground, unfortunately, for al Qaeda terrorists who are practicing on our soldiers," Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," also on Sunday.

Although earlier this month, the administration announced the recent capture of an insurgent they described as a "conduit" between al Qaeda's leadership and al Qaeda in Iraq, the connections between the two groups are unclear.

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Al Qaeda in Iraq's then-leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October 2004. Al-Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in June 2006.

The administration defends its reliance on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to lead the fight against al Qaeda in the Pakistani tribal areas, despite complaints -- rejected by both Musharraf and the U.S. government -- that his policies have allowed the group to strengthen there. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

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