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The president cites declassified security details.

President Bush cited intelligence reports Tuesday he said showed a link between al-Qaida's operation in Iraq and the terror group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Democrats dismissed Bush's argument.

"The merger between al-Qaida and its Iraqi affiliate is an alliance of killers, and that is why the finest military in the world is on their trail," Bush said at Charleston Air Force Base, a launching point for cargo and military personnel headed to Iraq.

Citing security details he declassified for his speech, Bush described al-Qaida's burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to the United States. Bush accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.

"That's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying, 'He's probably just there to cash a check,' " Bush told troops at the base.

Bush is up against highly skeptical audiences with 18 months left in office. The public has largely lost faith in the war, Congress is weighing ways to end it, and international partners have fading memories of the 2001 attacks against the United States.

"The president's claim that the war in Iraq is protecting us from al-Qaida is as misguided and dangerous as the conclusions that drove us to Iraq in the first place," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "The fact is that our continued flawed strategy in Iraq is emboldening and unifying al-Qaida, both in that country and elsewhere."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush "is trying to scare the American people into believing that al-Qaida is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq." But Kerry said Bush presented no new evidence to back that up.

Bush cited intelligence that:

- Al-Qaida in Iraq was founded not by an Iraqi but by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who had deep relations with al-Qaida leaders. The president said Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces last year, set up operations with terrorist associates in Iraq long before U.S.-led forces arrived. Zarqawi formally joined al-Qaida in 2004, he said.

- The merger gave al-Qaida senior leadership "a foothold in Iraq to extend its geographic presence and to plot external operations and to tout the centrality of the jihad in Iraq to solicit direct monetary support elsewhere."

Fast facts

Al-Qaida in U.S.?

A top U.S. military commander said Tuesday he believes that there are al-Qaida cells in the United States - or people working to create them - and that the military needs to triple its response teams to counter a growing threat of attack. "To assume that there are not those cells is naive and so we have to take that threat seriously," Air Force Gen. Victor "Gene" Renuart, who heads U.S. Northern Command, told the Associated Press in an interview.