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Published: Saturday, 9/30/2006

Iraq as 'cause celebre'

THE realization that the war in Iraq only encouraged and served as a training ground for an Islamic jihad against the United States is reinforced by the latest National Intelligence Estimate, a portion of which has been declassified belatedly by President Bush.

Ironically, the White House, in an attempt to deflect the impact of the classified report on American public opinion, also is correct when it says that ill will toward the U.S. on the part of Islamic extremists is nothing new.

As one of the President's spokesmen put it, the enmity of Muslim religious radicals for the U.S. "did not develop overnight. Those seeds were planted decades ago."

And perhaps that's the point: If the war, launched against Baghdad in March, 2003, was destined to make matters worse, why did Mr. Bush and his coterie of true believers work so hard to deceive Congress and the American people to make it happen? And why are they still defending the indefensible?

The answers lie in the administration's tunnel vision and obstinate refusal to consider the reality of a rapidly spreading jihadist movement. Invading Afghanistan in retaliation for harboring and training the 9/11 hijackers was one thing but, by invading Iraq, the U.S. has painted a target on its back for terrorists that will not soon be erased.

The Iraq adventure has given Islamic extremists from all corners of the globe a true gift: an easily identifiable, high profile cause for which to fight.

A "cause celebre," as the intelligence estimate concluded.

Conversely, the U.S. has put itself in the awkward position of battling a movement that is impossible to defeat in the usual sense because it is a stateless, ideological entity, without a standing army and a readily identifiable command and control structure.

The National Intelligence Estimate, a 30-page report that represents a consensus of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, is said by those who have seen it to state what has become obvious to all but those at the highest levels of our government. As one official told the Los Angeles Times, "It paints a fairly stark picture of what we all know, and that this is a movement that is spreading and gaining momentum around the world. Things like the Iraq war have given the terrorists recruiting tools and places to ply their trade and a training ground."

The administration's response - that a jihadist movement would have sprung up elsewhere anyway - is typical of those who predicted the U.S. invasion of Iraq would be met with a shower of flower petals. Wishful thinking could not erase centuries of factionalism and tribal enmities unleashed once the country came out from under the iron fist of Saddam.

And the United States, for all the brave talk about inspiring freedom in the land of the unfree, cannot afford long-term to maintain a bloody occupation that is costing in excess of $9 billion a month.

The task now is to determine how to extricate American forces from this roiling quagmire quickly but in a manner that will be least harmful to all involved.

The longer the administration maintains its nation-building fantasy, the longer this unnecessary national nightmare will continue.



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