WASHINGTON - Accounts of mobs hacking at ambushed Americans and displaying their corpses in the Iraqi city of Fallujah yesterday conjured memories of the killing of 18 U.S. Army Rangers in Somalia a little more than a decade ago, and of the gruesome image of one Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
Then, as now, the immediate reaction of the White House was to stay the course.
Yet the grisly events of Oct. 4, 1993, are now seen as a turning point in the U.S. commitment to Somalia. Despite an immediate decision to bolster forces there and finish the job "on our terms," as President Bill Clinton put it, the United States eventually abandoned Somalia and let it collapse.
Whether yesterday's explosion of hatred in Fallujah proves similarly pivotal remains to be seen.
President Bush, who ordered last year's invasion of Iraq, has much more at stake there than Clinton had in Somalia. Clinton inherited a military-humanitarian mission that spun out of control after it was turned over to the United Nations. He sent in U.S. special forces reluctantly, only after militias linked to a Somali warlord begun attacking American-led U.N. peacekeepers.
Iraq is an oil-rich nation of 25 million, of huge strategic importance in a dangerous region, and the linchpin of Bush's vision of a democratized Middle East. Somalia was a starvation-racked land of 8 million in the Horn of Africa that had lost its strategic value after the Cold War.
Americans recognize that the stakes now are much higher, but yesterday's attacks, coupled with the relatively high number of casualties in March, could erode their tolerance for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution: "This will be one more little hit in our national psyche."
In both Somalia and Iraq, the administration's stated reasons for sending U.S. troops in the first place were different from the reasons to keep them there. Troops were dispatched to Somalia to prevent militias from blocking delivery of food aid. They got caught in a civil war.
American forces invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein and strip the country of suspected banned weapons. They are now fighting not only Iraqi insurgents but also Islamic militants who have adopted Iraq as their new front line against the West.
In both countries, the violence was accompanied by fractious politics that called into question whether a stable nation would emerge. Somalia was riven by clan conflict. Iraq is historically divided among a Shiite Muslim majority, a Sunni Muslim minority and a Kurdish population demanding some autonomy.
If Americans' immediate response to the bloodshed in Mogadishu now offers clues to how they will react to their countrymen being burned, dragged, hacked and hanged in Fallujah, they won't want to withdraw. They will want an aggressive U.S. response, at least for now.
According to research by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, 55 percent of Americans favored sending more U.S. forces to Somalia after the incident that became known as "Black Hawk Down," after the book and movie of that name. Between 37 percent and 43 percent wanted to pull out.
Americans' "instinct is not to cut and run," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. Politicians of both parties have echoed this sentiment.
The number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq has not reached the level of at least 1,000 that a majority of Americans expected before the war started, said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.
"But that doesn't mean that [an attack such as yesterday's] doesn't have a powerful emotional impact," he said, with an effect on how Americans regard Bush's initial decision to go to war. "It makes people sit up and pay attention. There will be hard questions, and this could have ramifications for the president."
Several days after the Mogadishu attacks, Clinton chose to boost the U.S. presence, dispatching 5,300 troops and an aircraft carrier. But under bipartisan congressional pressure, he also decided to set a pullout date of six months hence. Once he set the date, a majority supported him, Kull said.
Some military officers and analysts say they believe U.S. forces in Iraq should have been increased long ago. Just before the war, the Army's top officer at the time, Gen. Eric Shinseki, estimated to Congress that it would take "several hundred thousand" troops to occupy Iraq once major combat ended. He was publicly rebuked by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"We're paying the price for never having enough boots on the ground," contends Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer who frequently writes on military strategy. "From the first days of the occupation, we needed to permeate the Sunni Triangle," referring to the area north and west of Baghdad that has been the site of many insurgent attacks on Americans.