Chaos as an anti-U.S. strategy
By Thom Shanker
WASHINGTON -- The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad provided grisly evidence of a new strategy by anti-American forces to depict the United States as unable to guarantee public order, as well as to frighten away relief organizations rebuilding Iraq.
Military officers and experts on terrorism said the bombing fit a pattern of recent strikes on water and oil pipelines and the Jordanian Embassy, although they emphasized that it was too early to uncover any connections among the attacks.
In recent weeks terrorists have conducted almost daily attacks on the American military. But after the bombing [Tuesday] there is a growing belief that anti-American fighters, whatever their origin and inspiration, have adopted a coherent strategy not only to kill members of allied forces when possible, but also to spread fear by destroying public offices and utilities.
President Bush was defiant. He said: "Every sign of progress in Iraq adds to the desperation of the terrorists and the remnants of Saddam's brutal regime. The civilized world will not be intimidated, and these killers will not determine the future of Iraq."
Speaking at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he added that the assailants were "the enemies of every nation that seeks to help the Iraqi people."
But the problem now posed for American forces in Iraq is an acute one. Put simply, if Iraqis are afraid and unconvinced that their situation is improving, their hostility to the United States may grow.
The attacks on foreign embassies and the headquarters of international organizations, as well as water and oil pipelines, appear specifically devised to halt improvements in the quality of life for average Iraqis.
"The goal is to deny the American occupation force the ability to pacify Iraq, to prevent the Americans from winning the hearts and minds of the people," said Loren Thompson, a military affairs analyst with the Lexington Institute. "If Iraq is in constant chaos, the United States can never move on to the next stage."
It is unclear whether the fighters are remnants of the former government or foreign Islamic zealots who have crossed into Iraq to kill Americans.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack. But it seems clear that any improvement in the standard of living of Iraqis is viewed by opponents of the occupation as a victory for the United States and its efforts to create a stable, democratic Iraq.
Across the government today, officials said the tactics and procedures used by the bombers were highly proficient but so standard as to offer no technical "fingerprint" to immediately identify those behind the attack.
Car and truck bombings are a signature tactic of religious-based Middle Eastern terrorism. The technique was used by Hezbollah in its fight against Israel and spread around the world over the last two decades, including the attacks against two American embassies in East Africa that intelligence agencies attribute to al Qaeda.
But one Pentagon official said that Saddam Hussein's secret service had trained in those methods, and that the Baghdad government was accused of planning a car-bomb attack to assassinate former President George Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
"You can't arbitrarily eliminate regime elements as involved in this attack," one official said. "They're well versed in these techniques."
Military officers and American administrators in Iraq have warned that fighters from Ansar al-Islam, a murky organization whose bases in northeastern Iraq were destroyed during the war, escaped to Iran but were returning.
Ansar is a small fundamentalist group accused of having links to al Qaeda, and it acts as an underground network for handfuls of disaffected Iraqis and many foreigners who want to take part in missions against the American military and its interests in Iraq.
About 150 fighters with ties to Ansar are now believed to be inside Iraq, and American intelligence had warned they were preparing to attack allied military forces or the administrative offices of those involved in reconstruction.
Ansar fighters may have carried out the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad on August 7 that killed at least 17 people, Pentagon and military officials say, but there is still no final determination.
American officials said today that their military and intelligence agencies had gathered no specific information about an attack being planned on the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad.
Last spring, even before the war began, the Central Intelligence Agency warned that terrorists operating in Iraq would carry out attacks against American and allied forces there after any invasion, government counterterrorism officials said.
"Inherent in a terrorist's strategy, through the ages, is to embarrass the ruling power and depict the ruling power as inept and incompetent and unable to maintain even a modicum of authority," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corporation.
One military affairs expert said the attack could backfire on those who had planned it.
"The attacks on the oil pipelines and the water are in some ways stupid, because if the United States plays it right, the government can run that back against these elements pretty effectively as hurting the average person," said Richard H. Shultz, director of the international security studies program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
He said the bombing might also quiet some critics of American policy.
"In hitting the United Nations, it could put into a rather tough position those in the U.N. who might have opposed what the United States is doing in Iraq, and even opposed our entry into the war to begin with," Mr. Shultz said.
In other words, by attacking the United Nations the bombers may have made it easier for President Bush to convince European and Arab nations that they have a stake in a peaceful, stable Iraq.
"This will be a loud call to them to get involved," said Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.