WASHINGTON – Al Qaeda would have been a lot stronger today had the United States not gone on the offensive against the terror network, including in Iraq, President Bush said Tuesday.
Still, critics contend the war in Iraq is feeding Al Qaeda's jihadist ambitions, and it's best to get out of there now.
Speaking with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon by his side in the Oval Office, Bush said Usama bin Laden's terror group is not as strong as it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001, because of efforts to work with the international community to keep pressure on it and "stay on the offense, to bring them to justice so they won't hurt us again."
"These killers in Iraq, people who will kill innocent life to stop the advent of democracy, people who are trying to get on our TV screens on a daily basis to drive us out, have got ambitions and plans," Bush said. "They want us to leave parts of the world, like Iraq, so they can establish a safe haven from which to spread their poisonous ideology. And we are steadfast in our determination to not only protect the American people, but to protect these young democracies."
The president's remarks come on top of the latest National Intelligence Estimate that shows Al Qaeda is regaining capabilities and using Iraq to recruit jihadists to its cause. They accompany warnings a day earlier by Ban, who said a rapid U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could deepen the crisis there.
The intelligence assessment says increased counterterrorism efforts worldwide over the past five years have curtailed Al Qaeda's ability to attack the United States, but have increased the terror group's desire to hit the homeland.
The focus of terrorist groups remains on high-impact, high-casualty attacks in the U.S. rather than smaller actions, which the NIE suggests means the terror groups are biding their time.
But the NIE, whose contents were first outlined last week during testimony on Capitol Hill, has fueled administration critics and war opponents, particularly among those who don't make a distinction between pre- and post-Sept. 11 Al Qaeda strength.
"'Al Qaeda is stronger,' so says the report. The president disagrees but that's what the report says. You can't have it both ways," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
"After almost six years, awesome sacrifices by our brave men and women in uniform, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, we are no safer than we were on 9/11," said Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a 2008 Democratic presidential contender.
The NIE says Al Qaeda will try and use the contacts and abilities it has gained in Iraq to attack inside the U.S., and Democrats say that shows the war is at best a distraction.
"Al Qaeda has gotten stronger as a result of the policies of this administration, and they now are in Iraq where they were not in Iraq prior to the Iraq war," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and sponsor of legislation to pull out all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by April 2008.
In the House, Democratic leaders said the findings bolster their push for Congress to adopt recommendations offered by the Sept. 11 commission in 2004. Earlier in the day, House leaders appointed conferees to go to negotiations with senators and hammer out differing versions of bills passed by both chambers earlier this year.
"What we are doing today will go a long ways towards refocusing this country and hopefully this administration on what the real deal is," said House Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.
The NIE report shows that Al Qaeda "is reconstituting its threat to the United States, is as severe as it has ever been. So, it's upon us to get this legislation to the president before we adjourn ... to help America make itself more secure both at the ports of entry — be it airport, cargo — also for nuclear material," added House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel.
The White House put on a full court press to keep Democrats from capitalizing on the NIE, insisting that it not be seen as a progress report on the War on Terror.
"The National Intelligence Estimate, again, is not a tactical document," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, denying that the war in Iraq is playing into Al Qaeda's hands.
White House Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend suggested that it's absurd to withhold from military operations for fear it will motivate terrorists.
"So we should leave them and we should not disturb our enemies anywhere in the world because they may use it for propaganda value? I don't think so," Townsend said during a briefing on the estimate.
The report also says Al Qaeda has found safe haven in the tribal areas along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, another conclusion that brought criticism from Democrats who say Iraq is the wrong focus.
"The key judgments of the NIE on terrorism released today paint a disturbing picture: a regenerated Al Qaeda, with a safe haven in Pakistani tribal areas, which is intensifying efforts to put operatives in the U.S.," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing & Terrorism Risk Assessment.
"We have lost our focus on the real War on Terror, said Clyburn, adding that the report will hopefully "allow us to refocus our attention on that which is really important in fighting this very very important war."
While rejecting that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Waziristan are the central front in the War on Terror, Snow also said that the Pakistani government is working with the U.S. to prevent radicals from operating there.
"It's not as if they've hung out a shingle and there's a great big compound. These are people who in fact do their very best to remain concealed," Snow said.
FOX News' Wendell Goler and Molly Hooper and The Associated Press contributed to this report.