- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

Al Qaeda remains trapped in a Vietnam fantasy. It is desperately trying to produce an “Iraqi Tet” — a Middle Eastern repetition of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong 1968 offensive in South Vietnam.

On April 2 and again on April 4, the terrorist gang led by al Qaeda’s Iraq commander, Abu Musab Zarqawi, launched “military-style attacks” on the Abu Ghraib prison complex in Baghdad. In the April 4 assault, U.S. forces took 44 casualties (most of them minor wounds). The terrorist gang, however, took 50 casualties, out of a force estimated at 60 gunmen.

On April 11, the gang attacked a Marine compound at Husaybah near the Syrian border. As I write, terrorist casualties are unconfirmed, but the assault flopped.

While bomb attacks on unarmed Iraqi civilians continue (particularly against Shi’ites), public opinion now matters in Iraq, and the thugs’ public slaughters have killed too many Iraqi innocents. January’s election dramatically lifted public morale and changed the media focus: Suddenly, democracy looks possible, and an Arab Muslim democracy is al Qaeda’s worst nightmare.

Hence the “Tet gamble.” Bombs have not cowed the Iraqi people, but perhaps the American people will lose heart and buckle if al Qaeda concocts a military surprise.

U.S. forces, however, are “hard targets” — unlike civilians standing in line to vote, U.S. troops shoot back. Since September 11, al Qaeda has never won a military engagement at the platoon level (30 men) or higher. Coalition forward bases are heavily fortified.

But the Tet fantasy is so compelling. Though Tet was by most measures a disaster for the communists, as a media and hence political event, Tet snuffed “the light at the end of the tunnel.” The Johnson administration had told the American public Vietnam had reached a turning point — “the light,” but Tet demonstrated that North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas were still capable of potent action.

NVA General Vo Nguyen Giap planned for maximum psychological and political impact. Communist forces simultaneously hit cities and military bases throughout the south. Though they took huge casualties, Gen. Giap’s real target was President Johnson. Communist attackers managed to break into the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon. The assault was repelled, but the moral damage — and dramatic photos — energized Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s “peace candidacy.” Political support for Mr. Johnson and the Vietnam War withered.

Iraq, however, is no Vietnam. The Vietnam War was strategic defense, a bitter Cold War “battle of containment.” The war on terrorism is a strategic political and military offensive directed at the dictators and theocrats who rule by death squad and export terror, and it’s a war we are winning.

With Iraq’s democratic political process gearing up, Zarqawi has decided the risk of facing U.S. troops is worth the reward in headlines. Hitting the Husaybah Marine compound is supposed to generate media echoes of Lebanon 1983 and the U.S. Marine barracks bombing that led to U.S. withdrawal.

U.S. Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, Centcom’s senior spokesman, told me that the terrorists seek media coverage of these attacks “to empower their cause, break the momentum of representational government [in Iraq] and dissuade the coalition to continue its support.”

Zarqawi’s gang “used a fire truck at Husaybah as a car bomb. That’s theatrics if you’ve ever seen theatrics,” Capt. Pittman said. “They’re trying to create a spectacular event, overrun a patrol or border outpost somewhere, an event with huge media value that would promote their cause and make them seem more powerful than they are.”

At Abu Ghraib and Husaybah, Zarqawi failed militarily. He did not get his scare headlines, either. Short of detonating a nuclear weapon in Baghdad, a ground attack on the Green Zone that succeeds in cracking the U.S. Embassy and taking hostages is the only “Tet” card Zarqawi has. The Green Zone, however, is Iraq’s hardest target.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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