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Bush denies al Qaeda at pre-September 11 strength

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush denied on Thursday that al Qaeda is as strong today as it was before the September 11 attacks.

Bush spoke after media reports, citing a new intelligence assessment, said the militant network is now as great a threat to U.S. soil as in the months before the 2001 hijack-plane attacks.

“There is a perception in the coverage that al Qaeda may be as strong today as they were prior to September 11. That’s just simply not the case,” Bush told reporters.

While administration officials have acknowledged that al Qaeda had recovered somewhat since U.S.-led forces drove its operatives underground in Afghanistan in late 2001, Bush insisted, “Because of the actions we’ve taken, al Qaeda is weaker today than they would have been.”

“They are still a threat. They are still dangerous and that is why it is important that we succeed in Afghanistan and Iraq and anywhere else we find them,” he told a news conference dominated by the release of an interim progress report on the Iraq war.

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Bush put much of the blame on al Qaeda attacks for the Iraqi government’s shortcomings in achieving national reconciliation. But sectarian killings between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis have also accounted for a large share of the death toll.

Bush’s comments echoed those of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who said on Thursday the threat to the United States from al Qaeda has not returned to levels seen just before the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

“I wouldn’t put it at that level,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “I do think we’ve accomplished an awful lot in dismantling their activities overseas and in building our own defenses. But I do think the level of intent on the part of the enemy remains very high.”

The Washington Post cited a Bush administration intelligence report saying al Qaeda has significantly rebuilt itself and established a safe haven in remote tribal areas of western Pakistan.

Top intelligence analysts also told Congress on Wednesday that al Qaeda’s training activities, funding and communications have increased as the militant network has settled into new bases in remote areas of Pakistan.

Chertoff told the Chicago Tribune this week that his “gut feeling” was that the United States faced a heightened risk of attack this summer.

But he told NBC on Thursday: “We don’t have any specific information about an imminent or near-term attack on the homeland. We’re looking at the strategic picture over the next six months to a year. We’re evaluating where that is.”

He said his concern the United States could be entering a period of heightened risk was based on greater al Qaeda activity in Pakistan and Africa, an increase in public messages from militant figures including Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, and a history of summer attacks.