Wednesday, August 20, 2003

As attacks against American troops in Iraq continue — 61 killed since the end of major combat operations on May 1 — and the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy a few weeks ago followed Tuesday by a terrorist attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, it leaves little doubt Iraq is quickly turning into a quagmire from which no visible exit strategy can be foreseen in the immediate future.

A few days ago, while on a panel on a Lebanese television satellite channel discussing terrorism and the need for reform in Saudi Arabia, one of my two co-commentators, a Saudi national, argued that the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington were carried out without reason.

His argument was that unlike other forms of terrorism, the September 11 jihadis did not have a list of specific demands or gripes. He pointed out as an example the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, which is fighting to expel the British from the northern portion of the island. Al Qaeda, he said, made no similar demands. The reasons for the attacks were obscure.

My counterargument was that he was dead wrong: The message was in fact very clear. There is always a motive behind a terrorist’s act, even when the reasons are not immediately obvious. Although there were no notes or list of demands left behind by the 19 suicide hijackers, the September 11 terrorists did have a clear-cut mission. Their actions were meant to hurt and punish the United States for its continued support of the Saudi royal family, which they deem as corrupt. And since the war on Iraq, the United States has not made any new friends in the area.

As U.S. and U.N. personnel begin to pick up the pieces from the U.N. headquarters compound in Baghdad after the bomb blasted the building earlier Tuesday, killing at least 24 people and injuring dozens more, one question investigators will ponder is who is responsible for such a senseless act? And why the United Nations?

Again, it is important to remember that terrorist attacks always come with a reason. While the responsibility for the U.N. attack, much like the September 11 attacks, will undoubtedly remain unclaimed, the perpetrators’ goals are nevertheless just as apparent. The ultimate aim is to hurt the United States and keep it ingrained in the frontlines, where its troops remain more vulnerable. The aim is to keep them visible and exposed and in a position where they can be harassed, attacked and, in the eyes of the terrorists, eventually defeated and forced to withdraw.

Tuesday’s attack comes at a time when the debate is gathering steam at the United Nations for the world body to assume greater responsibility in Iraq. Such a move, would allow the United States to ease back its presence in Iraq. The aim of this attack, it would appear, is to intimidate the United Nations, hoping to keep the United States engaged on the frontlines and to drag it deeper into the dilemma Iraq is fast becoming.

Attacks against American troops continue on a quasi-daily basis amid alarming reports of Arab jihadi combatants arriving by the score in Iraq for a chance to fight the United States. Iraq is well on its way to become the new magnet for anti-Americanism, much as Afghanistan attracted anti-Soviet mujahideen guerrillas in the 1980s — people like Osama bin Laden and his Afghan-Arabs who eventually, with U.S. help, defeated and expelled the Soviets.

It is not only the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime fighting the Americans in Iraq today. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters from a number of Islamist organizations opposed to the United States are now either in Iraq or trying to get there.

“Pandora’s box of terrorism is open in Iraq,” James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman said to CNN, commenting on Tuesday’s attack. Indeed, it would appear the very terrorism the war in Iraq was meant to combat is now being drawn into the country with renewed vigor and with no lack of targets.

Much like the borders of Afghanistan, Iraq’s thousands of miles of rugged frontier remains extremely porous, allowing hardened jihadis such as Algerian or Tunisian Islamists to easily infiltrate from neighboring Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. And there appears to be no shortage of volunteers willing to make that trek for a chance to fight the Americans.

Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.

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