Winning the war with the car bomb

Posted: Oct 31, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- It is possible to win a counterguerrilla war. The British did so in Malaya in the 1950s. The United States may succeed in doing so in Iraq today. It is far more difficult, however, to defeat the car bomb. It is on the car bomb, therefore, that the Saddam loyalists' hope for victory rides.

The guerrilla war in Iraq is wearing and painful for Americans. The enemy plants the roadside bomb, and succeeds with the occasional ambush. The losses are mounting. What makes success for the saboteurs still dubious, however, is that they do not represent a true guerrilla force. They are nothing like the successful Vietnamese, Chinese or Cuban guerrillas who were, in Mao's famous phrase, ``fish swimming in the sea of the people.''

The Saddam loyalists swim in a small lake. They represent the deeply loathed Baathist regime with just a small constituency at home -- bolstered by foreign terrorists who may speak for a general kind of Islamism but are no more loved by Iraqis than they were by the Afghans, who despised them.

There is no general uprising among the Iraqi people. On the contrary: 80 percent of the country is either Shiite or Kurd, for almost a century ruled and repressed by the Sunni Arab minority. Which is why most polls show a very substantial majority of Iraqis want the Americans and British to stay and are pleased with the overthrow of Saddam.

The resistance to the U.S. occupation is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab. But it represents only 15 percent to 20 percent of the Iraqi population. For 30 years, through their own Saddam Hussein, they used their power not just to rule but to rob. They gorged themselves on Iraq's oil wealth. Tikrit was a sleepy town before Saddam rose from it to Stalinist god-king and poured not only privilege, power and protection into Tikrit and onto Tikritis, but vast amounts of money as well.

The Iraqi resistance, such as it is, is rooted in the Sunni Baathists who have everything to lose if the Americans succeed. But it is precisely because they represent so small a minority that they are likely to fail, barring a collapse of American will at home.

Which is why the enemy has turned to the car bomb. The car bomb does not require a constituency. It does not require popular support. It requires only one person who knows explosives and another who is willing to drive and perhaps to die.

The car bomb is the nuclear weapon of guerrilla warfare. The 1983 car bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans, drove the U.S. out of Lebanon. Commemorated here on its 20th anniversary just last week, it has long been celebrated by jihadists as proof of American weakness. But there was another car bomb in Beirut in the early 1980s that was just as significant. It is now largely forgotten in the West, but well-remembered by the Arabs.

It, too, had quasi-nuclear effect. In 1982, a car bomb blew up Phalange Party headquarters, killing Bashir Gemayel, the newly elected pro-Western, pro-American, pro-Israeli president.

Syria was deeply unhappy with him. The car bomb soon took care of business, wiping out an entire office building housing not just Gemayel but many top aides and government officials. It was the perfect political decapitation. With Gemayel gone, and a year later the Americans too, Lebanon inexorably fell into Syria's lap. It remains a Syrian colony to this day.

Our enemies in Iraq have learned these lessons well. The car bomb of Oct. 12 was aimed at the Baghdad Hotel, housing not just large numbers of Americans but much of the provisional Iraqi government. It would have been the equivalent of the two Beirut bombings in one: a psychologically crushing massacre of Americans -- which would have sparked immediate debate at home about withdrawal -- and the instantaneous destruction of much of the pro-American government, a political decapitation that would have left very few Iraqis courageous enough to fill the vacuum.

The bomber failed. Most significantly, it was Iraqi police who assisted in shooting up the car at a relatively safe distance and thus preventing a catastrophe. The car bomb campaign has, however, continued with singular ferocity since. The war in Iraq now consists of a race: the U.S. is racing to build up Iraqi police and armed forces capable of taking over the country's security -- before the Saddam loyalists and their jihadist allies can produce that single, Beirut-like car bomb that so discourages Americans (and Iraqis) that we withdraw in disarray.

Who wins the race? If this president remains in power, the likelihood is that we do.