Terror's gains


REALITY HAS FINALLY caught up with rhetoric. Last winter the Bush administration wasted no opportunity to declare that Iraq posed a clear and present danger to America in part because it was in league with terrorists -- maybe even including al-Qaida. There wasn't much evidence for it then, but it made a handy hook to hang a war on.

There's more evidence now. Both Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and civilian boss L. Paul Bremer III have said that some measure of the continuing trouble in Iraq is caused by foreign terrorists who appear to have al-Qaida behind them. Organizations linked to al-Qaida have been moving men into Iraq and stepping up activity there, they say.

Let's put it another way: Since the war, Iraq has started to look like a fertile ground for terrorists. The American invasion made this possible. The United States has created what it went to war to prevent.

Now Iraq really is a threat to Americans, starting with the 150,000 troops who are stationed there. A U.S. soldier was killed in an explosion outside Baghdad yesterday, the 57th to be killed since May 1. If this was a case of taking the fight to the enemy, it might be understandable, but it looks more and more as though the United States has inadvertently chosen to present the enemy with an opportunity.

At one time al-Qaida was on the run -- Vice President Dick Cheney said so himself -- but the chance to crush the group that carried out the Sept. 11 attacks was squandered in the mountains of Afghanistan, and now the American invasion of Iraq has opened up new possibilities. There was, to be sure, an allied militant group called Ansar al-Islam in the mountains of northeastern Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power, but they were hemmed in by hostile Kurds and had no ties to the regime in Baghdad. Now they appear to be settling in, in the capital itself.

Is this any way to combat terrorism? The Jordanian embassy in Baghdad is demolished in an explosion and sacked by a mob. Iraqis who were glad to see the American troops arrive now heartily wish they would go. The city of Basra simmers just below a boil in 120-degree heat, with fitful supplies of water and electricity. American administrators seal themselves off in presidential palaces and wonder why Iraqis don't love them, while American soldiers go out on raids every day.

American tactics have so far produced unfortunate results: a major spike in Middle East instability and far more hostility toward the United States in the Muslim world than existed two years ago. It's time for a reality check; the invasion of Iraq may have gotten rid of an odious regime, but it was a setback, not a victory, in the war on terror.

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