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Analyst counters Bush on Al Qaeda

Says biggest threat is in S. Asia, not Iraq

From left, Michael Leiter, James Clapper, and Pete Verga, officials in the homeland security and defense departments, waited for an intelligence hearing to begin. From left, Michael Leiter, James Clapper, and Pete Verga, officials in the homeland security and defense departments, waited for an intelligence hearing to begin. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- A day after President Bush sought to present evidence showing that Iraq is now the main battlefront against Al Qaeda, the chief US intelligence analyst for international terrorism told Congress that the network's growing ranks in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a more immediate threat to the United States.

In rare testimony before two House committees, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said that Al Qaeda terrorists operating in South Asia are better equipped to attack the United States than the network's followers in Iraq are.

Asked which arm of Al Qaeda concerned him the most, Gistaro told a joint session of the House armed services and intelligence panels that it was South Asia.

"The primary concern is in Al Qaeda in South Asia organizing its own plots against the United States," he said. Al Qaeda planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from its bases in Afghanistan.

The top leaders of the terrorist network, Gistaro added, are "able to exploit the comfort zone in the tribal areas" of Pakistan and Afghanistan and are "bringing people in to train for Western operations."

"We see increased efforts on the part of Al Qaeda to try and find, train, and deploy people who could get into this country," he testified.

Meanwhile, a top US general in Afghanistan told Pentagon reporters in a video teleconference that the number of Al Qaeda foot soldiers traveling to South Asia has increased up to 60 percent over the past year.

"It's increased probably 50 to 60 percent over what it was last year . . . and they come from multiple areas in the Middle East," said Army Major General David Rodriguez, commander of the 82d Airborne Division.

The comments provided more fuel for Democratic leaders in Congress who believe the White House is exaggerating the Al Qaeda threat in Iraq to justify prolonging the US military presence indefinitely.

"I am deeply concerned that we have not paid sufficient attention to the places that [today's] threat is most real," remarked Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "Chasing windmills has kept our eye off of the more important struggle, the one with roots in Afghanistan."

Senator John F. Kerry, who chaired a similar hearing yesterday of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for a renewed focus on Al Qaeda by working more closely with the Pakistani government and allocating more resources to track down the central leadership of the terrorist network.

"Osama bin Laden and top Al Qaeda leaders are likely still hiding out somewhere in the region, and none of us here need to be reminded of the nightmare scenario of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the wrong hands," Kerry said.

The United States has about 160,000 troops in Iraq and about 20,000 in Afghanistan.

Gistaro, the intelligence analyst, was among the main authors of a National Intelligence Estimate released this month that concluded that the network headed by bin Laden presents a "heightened threat" of attack against the United States.

The assessment, a small portion of which was disclosed publicly, said that the organization has been able to retain many of its top lieutenants, recruit new operatives, and establish new training camps in Pakistan's lawless northwestern frontier.

But in recent days the White House has highlighted one particular line in the declassified version of the report that portrays the group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq as the "most visible and capable affiliate [of Al Qaeda] and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [US] homeland."

On Tuesday, in a speech about Iraq to a military audience at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, Bush offered a detailed argument why Al Qaeda in Iraq is central to the battle against the terrorist network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush named a number of Al Qaeda leaders from across the Middle East who are organizing attacks in Iraq to make the case that much of the violence there is a direct result of the bin Laden network.

"Here's the bottom line," Bush said in a speech that mentioned Al Qaeda 25 times. "Al Qaeda in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden. Like bin Laden, they are cold-blooded killers who murder the innocent to achieve Al Qaeda's political objectives. Yet despite all the evidence, some will tell you that Al Qaeda in Iraq is really not Al Qaeda and not really a threat to America."

Bush warned that unless the United States sustains its current military strategy, Iraq could become a base to launch attacks against the United States -- as Afghanistan was before US forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

"We've already seen how Al Qaeda used a failed state thousands of miles from our shores to bring death and destruction to the streets of our cities, and we must not allow them to do so again," Bush said.

The White House reiterated its stance yesterday that Iraq is "the central front" in the war on terrorism.

"Al Qaeda leaders describe it the same way, which is why they are trying to use murder and mayhem to provoke sectarian violence, foment chaos, and create a safe haven for terror," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

But Gistaro testified that Al Qaeda followers in Iraq -- who number in the "several thousands" -- have little support among the local population.

Gistaro noted that the United States has begun arming Sunni Muslim tribes in western Iraq to fight Al Qaeda sympathizers who have entered the country to sow civil war and kill US troops.

Abraham Wagner, a senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism at Columbia University, called Bush's speech about the Al Qaeda threat in Iraq a "spin job."

"In the Cold War it was called 'threat lumping,' " Wagner said. "It is creating a threat to justify what you are doing. Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed prior to the US activity in Iraq and I think it is still a small operation."

"It is unfortunate," he added, that "the administration, in their last gasp to justify what they are doing, are inventing threats and misrepresenting what they are getting from the intelligence community."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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