Bombs and Politics

MUCH is being said about the political risks in the United States of a ground war that could result in substantial casualties. Somewhat overshadowed are the political risks in the Middle East of continuing a massive air war that gives Saddam Hussein propaganda bullets. Not that the reports of civilian loss of life and damage to nonmilitary facilities are simply propaganda. Dispatches from Baghdad are slanted by censors to emphasize civilian damage. But there's no doubt an air attack the scale of that now being waged against Iraq inevitably causes significant harm to civilians - even with precision targeting and a policy of avoiding, as much as possible, ``collateral damage.''

Iraqis and others not in uniform have been killed and injured, errant bombs and missiles have occasionally plunged into neighborhoods, basic services have been disrupted, and a whole population is living in terror of destruction from the skies. For all President Bush's protestations to the contrary, pictures of bombed bridges and collapsed housing can create an impression that the coalition's does, in fact, intend to ``destroy Iraq.''

That one of the more traditionally moderate leaders in the region, King Hussein of Jordan, has now taken up this charge against the US and its coalition partners is evidence of how the bombing is inflaming regional politics. King Hussein's position is particularly sensitive, given the pro-Iraqi sympathies of his largely Palestinian populace. But even a strongly anti-Saddam leader like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak is feeling the pressure.

US planners inclined to prolong the bombing of Iraq for another month or more have to weigh these factors. Saddam's ability, for nearly a month now, to stand up to the US-led coalition is giving him hero status among many in the region.

He deserves the opposite status. The suffering in Iraq further indicts Saddam's dreadful judgment in invading Kuwait and refusing to withdraw. His only hope now is to salvage a political victory from likely defeat in the field.

This political battle is critical. Efforts to stabilize the region once the fighting ends could test the US and its coalition partners just as much, if not more, than current military action.

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