Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bush contends with 2 reports refuting Iraq gains

Bush contends with 2 reports refuting Iraq gains
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An intelligence report showing an upsurge in Islamic militancy put the White House on the defensive on Wednesday in an election-year debate over whether President George W. Bush has made America safer.

In a second blow to the president, a new U.N. report said the Iraq war was providing al Qaeda with a training center and fresh recruits, and was inspiring a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan hundreds of miles away.

Bush ordered the release of parts of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Tuesday to try to stamp out a political fire after a leaked portion said the Iraq war had increased Islamic extremism.

But a key judgment in the declassified version that could backfire on Bush said intelligence experts believed activists identifying themselves as jihadists "are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion."

The report, prepared in April, also said the Iraq war had become the "cause celebre" for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement."

The U.N. report released on Wednesday jibed with the NEI's conclusions.

"New explosive devices are now used in Afghanistan within a month of their first appearing in Iraq," it said. "And while the Taliban have not been found fighting outside Afghanistan/Pakistan, there have been reports of them training in both Iraq and Somalia."

The U.N. report was prepared by terrorism experts for the Security Council,


The White House has scrambled to try to explain the intelligence assessment, given Bush's September 7 claim that "America is winning the war on terror."

Spokesman Tony Snow insisted during a combative session with reporters that the United States and allies had made great gains against al Qaeda, including taking out key leaders, taking away a safe haven in Afghanistan and attacking its financial support.

He said even if the United States had not been fighting the Iraq war, the threat from Islamic extremists would still exist, given the attacks attributed to al Qaeda before September 11.

After a high-profile series of speeches by Bush marking the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Republicans had felt better about their chances of holding on to both houses of the U.S. Congress in November 7 elections.

The question now is whether that momentum will be stalled by an intelligence report both sides are battling to use to their advantage.

Democrats tried to raise doubts about Bush's handling of the war on terrorism.

"The president likes to say 'we're winning the war on terror' but now the American people can read for themselves that the intelligence community believes something different: The war in Iraq is increasing the threat of terrorism at home and around the world," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean.

Republican strategist Scott Reed said a debate over terrorism helps Republicans. "Any day Republicans can keep it on terrorism and taxes is a winner," he said.

Democrats also called on Bush to release the entire National Intelligence Estimate after the White House declassified only 3-1/2 pages.

The White House refused, saying to do so would reveal sources and methods of intelligence collection, put agents at risk and imperil relations with foreign governments.

At the same time, California Rep. Jane Harman, senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, accused the Bush administration of holding back until after the election a new NIE being prepared on Iraq.

Snow said Harman was "just flat wrong," that the report was not even in a draft form and would take time to complete.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Tabassum Zakaria, Matt Spetalnick, David Morgan, Vicki Allen and Irwin Arieff)