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Facing Our Madrid

The violence in Iraq has a purpose: to influence America's presidential election.

12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2004 • By POWL SMITH
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READ A NEWSPAPER, watch television, or listen to the radio this fall, and the story from Iraq is the violence sweeping the country. Insurgents have stepped up their attacks, you'll hear. More and more U.S. service members are being killed and wounded every month. The international media is fleeing, and those willing to stay behind rarely venture out from their shelter in the Palestine Hotel.

But even as these reports about the violence grow ever more strident, what's missing is any discussion about why attacks are increasing.

The "why" is obvious to those of us over here facing the danger every day. It isn't because the terrorists are winning--far from it. American troops, nowadays more often than not in support of our Iraqi allies' forces, are retaking insurgent strongholds from Najaf to Samara, even as more Iraqi security forces are arriving from Multi-National Force (and soon NATO) training camps to assume a greater share of responsibility for these fights. Nor is it just that the enemy wants to stop Iraqis from voting in their first free democratic election three months from now--although that's certainly a huge part of it.

No, the real target of the increased insurgent attacks--their strategic grand prize--is American public opinion. The real reason for the surge in violence this fall? The U.S. presidential election.

In the same way that al Qaeda changed the outcome of the Spanish elections last March with a single catastrophic bombing in Madrid, the enemies of a free Iraq are increasing the tempo of attacks in order to feed the media, and therefore the American people, a steady diet of blood and carnage in order to convince us that "it just isn't worth it." The Saddam loyalists, foreign fighters, and al Qaeda terrorists know they can't possibly defeat us militarily. They haven't stood up to our forces, much less won a single fight yet. Instead, they are focusing their effort on sapping public support for our mission back home.

There's nothing new about this strategy. In the run-up to the election of 1900, for instance, with United States embroiled in a counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines, guerrillas launched a major offensive in the hope that the U.S. public would lose its resolve and demand an early military withdrawal. In that case, their gambit failed, U.S. soldiers stayed to finish the job, and the Philippines went on to become the first democracy in Asia. But unfortunately, there are numerous other instances in history--from Vietnam to Somalia--when insurgencies have succeeded in breaking American willpower.

Those of us in Iraq today have been preparing for the surge in violence for months, redoubling our efforts to deter the assaults and defend ourselves and the innocent Iraqis slaughtered by indiscriminate suicide bombings and mortar attacks. We recognize that our enemies will perpetrate every barbaric crime and cruelty imaginable to grab the media's attention and convince Americans that this fight is unwinnable. The fact is, we successfully stop the great majority of these attacks, but the few that succeed are splashed across the headlines and television screens of America every day. The suicide bombings, the assassinations, and the gruesome, videotaped executions of innocent civilians, all are designed to terrify Americans and our Coalition allies, and shake our convictions.

This is a sentiment worth remembering when you're reading the latest headlines from Iraq. Many Americans were openly contemptuous of the Spaniards who were intimidated into withdrawing from Iraq by the attack on their capital. That could never happen to America, we thought. Terrorists will never terrorize the United States into submission.

But the truth is, in Iraq today, America is facing its own Madrid. Whether you are Democrat, Republican, or independent, it should anger you to the very core that our enemies are trying to slaughter American soldiers, innocent Iraqis, and indeed, just about anyone they can find, every day in order to frighten us into retreating. Winning this war will thus ultimately require more than conventional military might. It is in ourselves--as individuals and as a nation--that we will find victory or defeat.

Lieutenant Colonel Powl Smith, U.S. Army, is the former chief of counterterrorism plans at U.S. European Command and is currently in Baghdad with Multi-National Forces-Iraq.