WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad yesterday provided bloody evidence of a new strategy by anti-U.S. forces to depict the United States as unable to guarantee public order, as well as to frighten away relief organizations rebuilding Iraq.
Military officers and terrorism experts said the bombing fits a pattern of recent strikes on water and oil pipelines and the Jordanian embassy, although they emphasized it was too early to uncover any connections among the attacks.
In recent weeks, guerillas have conducted almost daily attacks on the U.S. military. But after yesterday's bombing, there is a growing belief that anti-U.S. fighters, whatever their origin and inspiration, have adopted a coherent strategy not only to kill allied forces when possible, but also to destroy high-profile public offices and infrastructure.
Their attacks on foreign embassies and the headquarters of international organizations, as well as on utilities, appear specifically designed to halt improvements in the quality of life for average Iraqis.
"This kind of attack is about convincing the audience - relief organizations and even governments that are marginal participants in rebuilding Iraq - that they could be next," said Loren Thompson, a military affairs analyst with the Lexington Institute.
"The goal is to deny the American occupation force the ability to pacify Iraq, to prevent the Americans from winning the hearts and minds of the people," he added. "If Iraq is in constant chaos, the United States can never move on to the next stage."
Whether the fighters are remnants of the former regime or foreign zealots who have crossed into Iraq to kill Americans, they view any amelioration in the standard of living as a victory for the United States and its efforts to create a stable, democratic Iraq.
President Bush said yesterday that the United States and its allies would not be intimidated by the attack, and he suggested that the bombing could help persuade other nations to become more active in assisting U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"They are the enemies of the Iraqi people. They are the enemies of every nation that seeks to help the Iraqi people," Bush said.
Across the U.S. government yesterday, officials said the tactics and procedures used by the bombers were highly proficient but so standard as to offer no technical fingerprint to immediately identify those behind the attack.
Car and truck bombings are a signature tactic of religious-based, Middle Eastern terrorism. The technique was used by Hezbollah in its fight against Israel and spread over the past two decades around the world, including in al-Qaida attacks against two U.S. embassies in east Africa.
But one Pentagon official said that Saddam Hussein's secret service trained in these methods, and that the Baghdad government was accused of planning a car-bomb attack to assassinate former President George Bush in Kuwait in 1993.
"You can't arbitrarily eliminate regime elements as involved in this attack," one official said. "They're well-versed in these techniques."
Military officers and U.S. administrators in Iraq have warned that fighters from Ansar al-Islam, a murky organization whose bases in northeastern Iraq were destroyed during the war, had escaped to Iran but were returning.
Ansar is a small, fundamentalist group accused of links with al-Qaida, and it acts as an underground network for handfuls of disaffected Iraqis but mostly foreigners who want to participate in missions against the U.S. military and its interests in Iraq.
About 150 fighters with ties to Ansar are now believed to be inside Iraq, and U.S. intelligence had warned they were preparing to attack allied military forces or the administrative offices of those involved in reconstruction.
Ansar fighters may have carried out the Aug. 7 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad that killed at least 17 people, Pentagon and military officials say, but there is still no final determination.
U.S. officials said yesterday that there had been no specific information gathered by the military or intelligence agencies about an attack being planned on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.
Warning from CIA
Last spring, even before the war began, the Central Intelligence Agency warned that terrorists operating in Iraq would carry out attacks against U.S. and allied forces there after any invasion, government counterterrorism officials said.
"Inherent in a terrorist's strategy, through the ages, is to embarrass the ruling power and depict the ruling power as inept and incompetent and unable to maintain even a modicum of authority," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist at the Rand Corp.
He said the attackers were "certainly mindful of forthcoming discussions at the United Nations about providing assistance to rebuilding Iraq." The Security Council has extended a qualified welcome to the new Iraqi governing council.
One military affairs expert said that even within the pretzel logic of terrorism, the attack could backfire on those who planned it.
"The attacks on the oil pipelines and the water are in some ways stupid, because if the United States plays it right, the government can run that back against these elements pretty effectively as hurting the average person," said Richard H. Shultz, director of the international security studies program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, in Medford, Mass.
He said yesterday's bombing also could quiet some critics of U.S. policy.
"In hitting the United Nations, it could put into a rather tough position those in the U.N. who might have opposed what the United States is doing in Iraq, and even opposed our entry into the war to begin with," he said.