There’s a lot of confusion in the national media about how well pacification efforts are faring in Iraq. Yesterday, the Pentagon’s regional commander in the Middle East added to the confusion by asserting that terrorism is becoming the “number one security threat” in the country. That statement is at least misleading, and may be completely wrong. By agreeing with such an assessment, the Bush Administration is playing into the hands of the real enemy — Saddam loyalists bent on undermining reconstruction.
Gen. John Abizaid, the regional commander, certainly got one thing right in his press conference: U.S. forces need better intelligence about who is doing the attacks and how to stop them. But he then proceeded to point the finger at elements entering the country from Syria and elsewhere, when it should be obvious that isn’t the core problem. The Bush Administration wants to believe outsiders are setting off bombs, because it bolsters their contention that Iraq is an outpost in the war against Al Qaeda.
However, a revealing report on the bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad by Dexter Filkins in today’s New York Times points to the true culprit. The timing of the attack, the placement of the bomb, and the nature of the munitions used all suggest an inside job by former members of the Iraqi security apparatus. United Nations personnel on the scene turned down U.S. offers of security for their compound, preferring to hire the very guards that Saddam had sent to watch them before the war. Filkins’ report supports the conclusion that one (or more) of those guards passed on targeting information to the attackers.
If that is a valid interpretation of events, then calling the recent attacks on pipelines, the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. structure “terrorism” sends the wrong signal. Although terrorism by definition is indiscriminate attacks against civilian (“soft”) targets, the inference most people will draw from use of the word “terrorism” is that organizations like Al Qaeda and Ansar Al-Islam are involved. U.S. intelligence estimates there are fewer than 200 Ansar Al-Islam operatives in all of Iraq — they’ve mostly fled to Iran — and Al Qaeda probably has fewer.
On the other hand, there are thousands of former Baathists from the Republican Guard, state security organs and other Saddam-era organizations still roaming the country. It wouldn’t be surprising if some of them were trying to undermine reconstruction by committing gross acts of violence designed to create an impression of chaos. It also wouldn’t be surprising if they were trying to disguise their attacks as the work of outsiders like Al Qaeda.
The truth of the matter is that the Bush Administration has never demonstrated a strong link between Saddam’s government and terrorist organizations outside the country. By rushing to embrace a version of events that would seem to support that link, administration spokesmen are helping Saddam’s henchmen to spread a sense of hopelessness both in Iraq and here at home. So let’s get a grip, tone down the rhetoric, and focus on the real enemy instead of raising people’s fears through pointless speculation.
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