A holiday in Baghdad

October 28, 2003

DONALD RUMSFELD, it turns out, was right. In his now famous memo, which came to light a week ago, he pointed out to his Defense Department aides that the war on terrorism wasn't going as well as it might be. This had not been the line of the Bush administration, which at the time was busily trying to sell the idea that conditions in Iraq were just getting better and better, despite what you might read in the papers or see on television.

The month-long Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which began Sunday with a rocket attack on the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, is putting a damper on upbeat spin. Despite his boss' sober assessment, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was nonetheless at the hotel over the weekend to talk about American progress in Iraq. The rockets killed a U.S. colonel, chased Mr. Wolfowitz out of the Al Rashid even as he vowed not to be intimidated, and led to the shutdown of the hotel, which has been an important base for U.S. personnel.

A new wave of attacks began yesterday morning, and by the time they were through 34 people had been killed. The most devastating blast, by a suicide bomber in an ambulance, took place at the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The clear intent is to chase foreigners out of Iraq.

President Bush said yesterday that the attacks were a measure of the desperation of those opposed to the U.S. occupation of the country. That's probably true, in a sense, but you could argue that Sept. 11 was a measure of the desperation of al-Qaida. What's more important is that these attacks are a measure of the expertise of those inflicting them.

American officers in Iraq say that the attacks against U.S. convoys, Iraqi police stations and other targets are becoming more sophisticated. It's not clear how large a role non-Iraqis may be playing in the assaults; what is clear is that Iraqi civilians and American soldiers are the ones suffering.

It would seem that the best way to combat this sort of guerrilla warfare, which threatens to turn ordinary people against the occupiers, would not be to send out patrols kicking down doors, especially during Ramadan. Gathering sound intelligence - doing good police work, in other words - would seem like a much better option. But Washington is currently absorbed in the spectacle of the White House trying to dump all the blame for the bad intelligence before the war on the CIA. It's an unfortunately vivid reminder of how much the United States still has to learn about this part of the world.

In his cheerier moments, Mr. Rumsfeld has called those who oppose the United States in Iraq "dead-enders." The bloody attacks of the past two days make the whole country look more like a blind alley - and an especially dangerous one at that.

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