Iraq: Terror Behind the Lines?

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Investigators are still probing the explosion on the French tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen

A Marine live-fire urban-warfare training exercise in the Persian Gulf turned tragically real Tuesday when two local men firing AK-47 rifles jumped out of a pickup truck. The Marines killed their attackers, but not before losing one of their own and having a second man wounded — the first casualties, some will say, of the coming war for Iraq. Of course there is no war, right now, and the Pentagon insists that the training exercise in Kuwait had been planned months ago and had nothing to do with the current standoff. Then again, that planned exercise had been the annual joint maneuvers between U.S. and Kuwaiti forces, but Tuesday U.S. troops alone conducted an urban-warfare exercise amid reports that Iraq plans to face any invading force in its cities.

There are currently 10,000 U.S. troops in the country likely to be the strongest Arab supporter of any attack on Iraq, and journalists report seeing scores of battle tanks there, too. Regardless of President Bush's final intent, war talk — and preparations — have begun to dominate the politics of the Gulf and the wider Arab world, deepening tensions between governments traditionally supportive of the U.S. and their increasingly anti-American citizenry. U.S. planners will certainly take Tuesday's incident as a warning of what may lie ahead if terrorist groups — whether or not they're operationally linked with al-Qaeda — seek to ride that anti-American sentiment by harassing U.S. forces in their staging areas around Iraq, and beyond.

The Kuwait attack follows an incident on Sunday in which the French oil tanker Limburg exploded in waters off Yemen. Although investigators are still probing the cause of the blast, European officials believe it was a terrorist attack by an explosive-laden skiff — similar to the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole, also off Yemen, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and an area where his movement remains popular. The tanker blast came a day after the Qatari al-Jazeera cable network broadcast what it claimed was an audio tape from bin Laden warning of attacks on Western economic interests.

U.S. forces engaged in the war on terrorism are also under attack in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies are waging a guerrilla campaign in the south and east of the country, with rocket attacks on U.S. bases becoming an almost daily affair. And in the Philippines last Wednesday, a U.S. soldier was killed by a nail bomb thrown from a motorcycle in an attack blamed on the radical Islamist Abu Sayyaf group, whose operations have been the focus of U.S. counterinsurgency efforts there.

While these incidents may have no direct connection to U.S. preparations for war with Iraq, the prospect of an invasion is rallying anti-American sentiment on the Arab streets, where it is viewed as part of an anti-Arab, anti-Muslim crusade — and if that perception suits al-Qaeda's propagandists, the U.S. military buildup in the Gulf region may also suit its operational planners by offering more targets of opportunity and also by depleting U.S. deployments in Afghanistan.

Terror strikes behind the lines aren't the only security concern facing the U.S. in the region as tension escalates. There's also the prospect of mass anti-American demonstrations that could threaten the stability of some of its key allies in the region, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. President Bush has already been burned in effigy many times over this year in the streets of Arab capitals, although the trigger issue until now has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Earlier this year, the wave of Arab anger sparked by Israel's reoccupation of West Bank cities even reached as far as normally tranquil Bahrain, which is also home to U.S. Naval operations in the Gulf. That wave of outrage sabotaged Vice President Cheney's springtime mission to recruit Arab support for a war on Iraq, and forced the Bush administration to reluctantly resume a measure of mediation between Israel and the Palestinians.

The administration may have hoped those efforts would by now have calmed the situation to the point where it wouldn't interfere with a mobilization against Iraq. Instead, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be back on the boil. Arab TV screens have been filled this week with images of mayhem in Gaza following Monday's Israeli raid on Hamas supporters in the Khan Younis refugee camp that killed at least 13 Palestinians. That left Hamas threatening new suicide attacks, Israel threatening further incursions and the U.S. urging restraint. And new conflict threatens on a second front, as Lebanon prepares to start pumping drinking water on Wednesday from the Wazzani river, which flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel's primary freshwater source. Israel is fiercely opposed to the Lebanese plan, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has threatened to bomb the pumping station, while the Lebanese Hezbollah organization has vowed to retaliate.

Not that a few terrorist attacks and street demonstrations are going to deter the U.S. Behind-the-lines harassment is unlikely present a serious tactical challenge to any invasion plan, and no matter how intense the rage on the Arab street, none of the traditionally pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East world are currently challenged by a movement organizationally capable of seizing power. But fear of instability among Arab regimes continues to fuel an aversion to a war. And also, given that most are resigned to the inevitability of a war and are not about to break their longstanding alliance with Washington, a desire to see it finished quickly and decisively.