We're not in Mogadishu anymore, Toto

Posted: Apr 09, 2003 12:00 AM

The gloves are coming off. Since the war began, the United States military and the Bush administration have focused on saving Iraqi civilians, even at the cost of American lives. That strategy has worked brilliantly; photos of cheering Iraqis greeting their American liberators continue to flow into newspapers. But now that the war has finally gotten down to the nitty-gritty, we're pulling no punches.

Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and much of the Arab world thought that the war in Iraq would turn into one large-scale Mogadishu. They had good reason to believe it. For a decade, the U.S. leadership had two priorities in any war, in order of perceived importance: first, minimize civilian casualties, and second, minimize American casualties. To achieve those two goals, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton never got the United States deeply involved in any conflict. This pattern of activity led Osama Bin Laden to peg the United States as a "weak horse."

The early stages of this war were characterized by a similarly high regard for civilians. The British had to battle it out door to door in Basra for nearly two weeks before taking control of the city.

April 7, 2003, marked a turning point. The U.S. military learned that Saddam Hussein, senior officials and members of his Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) were meeting in a facility behind or beneath a restaurant in the al Salaa commercial block of Baghdad. At about 2:48 p.m., an Air Force B-1B bomber refueling over western Iraq got the order: Attack the restaurant -- this could be "the big one." Twelve minutes later, the B-1B dropped four satellite-guided 1-ton Joint Direct Attack Munition weapons, leaving a crater 60 feet deep and flattening the restaurant as well as three nearby houses. At least 14 civilians were killed.

But why would Saddam meet with his senior staff in a vulnerable area? Saddam was counting on the "Mogadishu syndrome" to prevent any U.S. attack on him. According to the Washington Times, "the IIS may have picked the spot to meet because it did not believe the allies would bomb a commercial block. The allies have stated their objective to avoid civilian casualties." Saddam didn't realize: The Mogadishu days are over.

On Tuesday, another incident confirmed the new strategic change. Iraqi snipers were using the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad to fire small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on an incoming U.S. tank. The tank immediately targeted the hotel, a base of operations for most international journalists, and fired one round of artillery into it, hitting the 15th floor, which housed Reuters news agency. Two journalists were killed, and another three were wounded. Firing from the building apparently stopped, since the tank did not fire a second round. Army Col. David Perkins, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, told the media that the military regretted the incident but blamed Saddam Hussein's forces for militarizing civilian areas.

The attack on the Palestine Hotel sends an even stronger message that enemies of the United States can no longer find safety in hiding behind civilians or even journalists. Killing Iraqi civilians is bad enough for public relations, but killing reporters is as bad as it gets. This is a brand-new idea -- the U.S. military will not sacrifice troops, even when journalists are in harm's way. As Brigadier Gen. Vincent K. Brooks stated, "We don't know every place journalists are operating on the battlefield. It's a dangerous place indeed."

With the U.S. military and the Bush administration conquering the Mogadishu syndrome, the next step is to allow our allies against Islamic terror to do the same thing.

The Israeli version of the "Mogadishu syndrome" is the "Jenin syndrome." Israel's consistent attempts to minimize civilian casualties have been overlooked by most of the world, including the U.S. government, which has often condemned Israel for its anti-terror operations. In an eerily similar situation to the anti-Saddam air strike, Israeli F-16s bombed an apartment complex housing Hamas terrorist leader Salah Shehade on July 23, 2002, killing Shehade as well as 14 civilians. The U.S. government condemned the attack, with White House press secretary Ari Fleischer calling the attack "heavy-handed." Now that the U.S. military has faced a similar enemy and dealt with it in the same way, U.S. policy toward Israeli anti-terror must change.

The United States has achieved an important step in the war against terror: overcoming our own aversion to civilian casualties in order to achieve victory. The attacks on Saddam and the Iraqi snipers push our military policy in a new direction, away from Mogadishu. For the United States to win the global war on terror, it must let our allies overcome their own Mogadishus.