Jerusalem bombing complicates Bush's plans for Iraq

Jordan's king cautions him against an invasion, but Bush isn't dissuaded.

Just when the United States thinks it can begin tackling the problem of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commands full attention again.

The suicide bombing Wednesday at Hebrew University in Jerusalem is having just this sort of effect. When Jordan's King Abdullah visited the White House Thursday, whatever intentions President Bush had to enlist the king's assistance in a bid to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were shaken and complicated by the blast.

Earlier this year, the Middle East conflict also put the US off its focus on Iraq, when Vice President Dick Cheney visited the region in March. What was meant to be a trip focused on making a case for Mr. Hussein's removal and persuading regional partners to help turned instead into an education for the White House on how the road to Baghdad would lead through Jerusalem.

Wednesday's bombing – which killed seven people, including five Americans – comes at a different stage in preparations for war with Iraq. Military options are much more developed now. Weaponry necessary for an attack, but that was drawn down in Afghanistan, is being rapidly replenished.

But with debate still pitched within the administration over how best – and when – to bring down Hussein, Mideast violence clouds the picture further. It reinforces the reluctance of allies and regional partners to back an attack on Iraq, and makes the administration's task of persuading them harder.

Still, Wednesday's bombing hasn't dissuaded the administration from its goal of removing Hussein from power. "This violence will reinforce the view in the administration that we have to be firm," says Edward Walker, former assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, and president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "If anything, it will reinforce the thinking that if you take care of Saddam Hussein, you have a much clearer field for tackling" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The bombing left Abdullah – who is already perturbed by reports that the US may use Jordan as a staging ground in an Iraq operation – all the more adamant that Mr. Bush must keep a sharp focus on alleviating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In particular, Abdullah wants a reduction in Bush's three-year timetable for achieving a Palestinian state. Such a time span leaves too much time for frustrations to grow, according to Abdullah and other Arab and European leaders.

After Bush's June speech in which he called for both Palestinian reforms and new Palestinian leadership, Bush hoped essentially to turn the conflict over to Secretary of State Colin Powell to manage, while the White House turned to Iraq.

Indeed, Mr. Powell is set to meet with a group of Palestinian leaders in Washington next week to pursue the reform process.

But the concurrent return of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a wider Washington debate highlights a split in US thinking about the regional impact of a US-forced regime change in Iraq.

A growing position in the White House, as Mr. Walker suggests, is the idea that toppling a dictator and facilitating the development of a democracy in such a large and influential Arab country will serve as a model for the region. In this theory, removing Hussein could ease achievement of Israeli security along with a peaceful Palestinian state.

But Arab leaders see rising tension among their populations over the way the US is handling the conflict, and fear violent reaction to a US attack that could entail high casualties.

"The politicized Arab street is already dismayed at the US approach to the conflict, so the friendly Arab governments fear the impact of the US attacking Iraq," says Walter Cutler, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "For them, that makes a more forceful role by the US" – and by that he means movement on political issues along with security concerns – "a requisite."

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