Fears of a Tet Offensive in Iraq

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Marwan Ibrahim / AFP / Getty

Iraqis inspect a crater left by the explosion of a suicide car bomb in the oil rich city of Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, July 16, 2007. A suicide car bomber ploughed today into a Kurdish party office in Kirkuk, triggering a blast that killed at least 71 people and wounding 180 others.

The U.S. commanders in Iraq seem to sense some new horror for the country is near. On July 7, Gen. David Petraeus predicted that insurgents would lash out with spectacular attacks in the coming weeks, as the clock runs down on time ahead of the September progress report due in Washington. And yesterday Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of U.S. forces in southern Iraq, echoed the fear when talking to reporters in the Green Zone. "We're concerned about some kind of Tet offensive that's going to affect the debate in Washington," Lynch said, harking back to the pivotal 1968 push by communist forces in Vietnam.

Today the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk witnessed one version of what an Iraqi Tet offensive might look like. At midday, a car bomb shook the city. Then came another blast, followed by one more. The coordinated trio of explosions left at least 75 people dead and offered a horrifying glimpse of the kind of organized assaults that American officials fear could unfold nationwide. Imagine a day in Iraq when catastrophic car bombs rip through not just one Iraqi city but several. Explosions coordinated to go off nearly simultaneously in places like Baghdad, Baqubah, Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, all places where insurgents are actively pursuing bombing campaigns, could bring about the highest death daily death toll seen yet and leave no question about the insurgency's ability to hold the entire country in a deadly grip more or less at will. That's one version.

Another could come in the form of a lightning blitz of murders, most likely targeting the Sunni sheiks of Anbar province who've thrown their lot in with the Americans. Sheik Abdul Sittar, the leader of the tribal alliance in Anbar province, has already survived at least one suicide attack against him. A successful one, in conjunction with the killing or maiming of one or more of his fellow Sunni chieftains, could largely undo one of the biggest successes the Americans have had against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

U.S. forces themselves could come under coordinated attacks in a Tet-like operation. Across Iraq, dozens of small combat outposts are opening in some of the most dangerous parts of the country as part of the surge strategy. Some are manned jointly by U.S. troops and Iraqi security. Others are makeshift forts where as few as 30 soldiers stand watch and launch patrols. Each one is a potential target for truck bombs. The prospect of multiple trucks laden with explosives barreling toward half a dozen or so such patrol bases in different parts of the country at once is all too real.

Another Tet-like strike might take aim at just the Green Zone, which has already lost its status as a relative safe haven in Baghdad. Mortars fall there almost daily, usually in swift barrages that sometimes kill people in ones and twos. But even 30 minutes of sustained, aimed mortar fire could kill dozens in one stroke as well as shatter official Iraqi buildings that represent the only meaningful display of governmental order in the country.

These are just some of the more obvious moves for insurgents to make in Iraq, ones discussed many times by those of us who try to anticipate the next possible catastrophe here. All are frightening, and very possible, given the observable capabilities of militants in terms of both armaments and organizational level. By some estimates, the insurgency has as many as 70,000 operatives and supporters nationwide among just Sunnis militants. The most virulent of the insurgents remains Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq. That group and its affiliates, says Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, "are the greatest source of spectacular attacks. We fully expect al-Qaeda in Iraq operatives to lash out and stage spectacular attacks."