Iraq war still `time of testing'

Iraq Conflict: World Opinion

March 18, 2004|By Mark Matthews and David L. Greene | Mark Matthews and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A year after President Bush launched an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, bad news from several directions is undercutting the White House case that progress is being made in Iraq and in the war on terrorism.

Yesterday's car bombing in Baghdad that killed at least 27 people was another stark reminder of how violent and unstable Iraq remains despite the presence of 130,000 U.S. and coalition soldiers, and of the dangers for Americans and others involved in the reconstruction effort.

Monday's announcement by Spain's prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, that he would withdraw his country's 1,300 soldiers from Iraq dealt a blow to the "coalition of the willing" that backed the U.S. invasion. Next to Britain, Spain had been the United States' strongest European ally in Iraq under Zapatero's predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar.

Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that the Iraq war has damaged U.S. standing overseas - just the opposite of what some proponents of the war had expected from a display of military might.

Rather than use this anniversary week to highlight progress in Iraq and the war on terror, the White House has instead been forced to adopt a posture of determination in the face of setbacks.

"This remains a time of testing in Iraq," Scott McClellan, Bush's spokesman, said after the Baghdad bombing. "The stakes are high; the terrorists know the stakes are high. But they will not prevail. We will meet this test with strength and with resolve."

Since well before the invasion, the White House has tried to draw a persuasive link between Iraq and the war on terror but has encountered widespread skepticism. Pointing to Hussein's payments to families of Palestinian suicide bombers, and scattered intelligence reports of contacts between his regime and al-Qaida, officials warned that Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could fall into the hands of terrorists who would kill Americans.

"Something had to be done to change a failed policy of 12 years [of United Nations sanctions on Iraq] and begin turning the Middle East in a direction different from the one that brought us to 9/11," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said in an interview aired yesterday by National Public Radio.

Wolfowitz asserted that the United States received confirmation from Iraqi diplomats that Iraqi intelligence officers had met in Sudan with Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s.

Events in Spain in the past week illustrated how efforts to link Iraq and global terrorism can backfire on a government. After that nation was rocked by train bombings in Madrid that killed at least 201 people, Spanish officials played down evidence that the blasts were the work of Islamic extremists. Instead, they highlighted suspicions about Basque separatists.

Spanish officials apparently feared that if the public knew that Islamic extremists were involved they would blame the government for having made Spain a target by joining the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

In the end, the ruling Spanish party was soundly defeated in Sunday's election, and Zapatero, an opponent of the Iraq war, was chosen as the new prime minister. Analysts have said that Spaniards were angered by a belief that the war had made them a target and that the Aznar government had misled them about who was behind the bombings.

If a working relationship between Hussein and al-Qaida has yet to be found, a series of attacks against civilians and coalition soldiers since the invasion bears out the White House contention that Iraq is a "central front in the war on terrorism."

The Baghdad blast came 15 days after a wave of bombings in the capital and in the holy city of Karbala that killed 200. Officials have warned of more attacks as the date approaches for a formal handover of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.

Critics of the war, such as Wesley K. Clark, the retired general and former Democratic presidential hopeful, have argued that the invasion diverted resources that should have gone toward pursuing al-Qaida.

Yesterday, referring to the bombings in Madrid and Baghdad, Clark called the war "a strategic distraction from the war on terror, and that's been my concern, and the events of the last few days underscore it."

Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has not gone that far in criticizing the war in Iraq, which he voted to authorize, though he has accused Bush of alienating allies in the run-up to the war. Yesterday, Kerry echoed Bush administration officials in calling for Spain to keep its troops in Iraq.

"I call on Prime Minister Zapatero to reconsider his decision and to send the message that terrorists cannot win by their acts of terror," Kerry said in a Washington speech that followed efforts by the Bush campaign to depict him as weak on defense. "Together, all of us have an interest in the outcome in Iraq."

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