Seeing Past Iraq's Smoke

Call it desperation escalation. The more daily life in Iraq is stabilized and the country wins international support, the more terrorists desperately hit highly symbolic targets, trying to create an impression that Iraq's not stable.

The latest bull's-eye was the International Committee of the Red Cross. A suicide bomber in an ambulance struck the ICRC's Baghdad office on Monday, one day after an attack on the city's most heavily fortified hotel, where Paul Wolfowitz, US deputy defense secretary, was staying. The last big attack was on the United Nations offices.

Don't be fooled.

These dramatic hits are aimed at swaying world opinion (mainly American) and not Iraqis, who prefer to vote for a new government rather than revolt against the Iraqi Governing Council and the multinational force led by the United States.

Someone with a sense of history, either Saddam Hussein or terrorists connected to Al Qaeda, may think they can bring about in Iraq what the Tet Offensive did in South Vietnam in February 1968, when a desperate Hanoi ordered futile attacks on US positions, notably the embassy in Saigon. The attacks created an impression that the US was losing militarily. It wasn't true, but the TV images helped turned American opinion against the war.

In Iraq, the desperate attackers show signs of losing the opinion war.

Over just the past two weeks, the "dead-enders," as the Bush administration calls the terrorists, have seen the UN Security Council vote unanimously to endorse the US-led restoration of Iraq, while a 73-nation donors' conference in Madrid came up with more than $33 billion in pledges - twice the size of the Iraqi economy - to aid Iraq's rebuilding.

And while President Bush and Congress argue over whether the US portion of that aid is a grant or partially a loan, the package will eventually pass, a reflection of the public's willingness to slog it out (as Donald Rumsfeld might say).

If anything, the attacks might slow down foreign investment in Iraq. The next big international hurdle is for the Iraqi leaders to sit down with creditors and renegotiate a debt that was supersized by Saddam Hussein. It's estimated to be more than $120 billion, or more than eight times what the economy's producing.

The creditors will want to see how well the economy is doing and how much oil is flowing before they extend repayment periods. Iraq has been in a two-decade depression, with the gross domestic product per person dropping from $3,600 a year to less than $640.

Fortunately, the International Monetary Fund sees a strong recovery next year, one that can be sustained only if Iraq receives some debt relief, if not outright forgiveness.

The world can't afford to commit the same mistake in Iraq as it did with Germany after World War I, letting it stagnate in red ink, making it ripe for dictatorship. That's probably exactly what the terrorists want. But so far it's easy to see through their tactics.

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