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A Double Setback for U.S. Goals in Mideast

August 20, 2003|Maura Reynolds and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — The back-to-back bombings in Baghdad and Jerusalem on Tuesday shook the twin pillars of President Bush's ambitious Middle East policy: building peace and democracy in Iraq and settling the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The attacks were a one-two punch to an administration that has been relentlessly upbeat about its ability to tame the region.

Some conservative members of the Bush administration have argued that by establishing a friendly government in Iraq and taking a more aggressive stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U. S. could solve a pair of problems that have bedeviled Bush's predecessors. Tuesday's events put both goals in jeopardy, at least for the moment.

Early in the day, on his way to the first golf outing of his August vacation, Bush had expressed optimism.

"A free Iraq will make the Middle East a more peaceful place, and a peaceful Middle East is important to the security of the United States," he said.

Less than two hours later, Bush was conferring heatedly with top aides about the Baghdad bombing. He went on the air shortly after noon, East Coast time, to denounce the bombers as "enemies of the civilized world."

In another two hours, the packed Jerusalem bus exploded.

Bush did not reappear for the rest of the day, and White House aides clung nervously to talking points and the president's earlier expressions of resolve.

"The attacks bring to light in a vivid way that terrorists are the enemies of the civilized world," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said gamely.

Administration officials said it was too early to determine the impact of the Jerusalem bombing on the Mideast peace plan known as the road map. Bush has taken the plan on as a personal cause and has a huge stake in its success.

National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that the bombing should not be seen as the beginning of the end of the peace effort.

"Our commitment to help the parties reach the goals [of the road map] remains unchanged and unshaken," he said.

But former Middle East envoy Dennis B. Ross, who negotiated with the Israelis and the Palestinians during the Clinton administration, said the peace process could easily stall.

"Now everything is probably going to be frozen," he said, predicting that the Israelis will again insist, as they have for some time, that nothing can be accomplished until the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure is dismantled.

"My guess was the Israelis who were prepared to say, 'You don't have to arrest people' are now going to say, 'We must have a demonstration,' " Ross said.

As for the fate of the U.S. occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, Bush's televised remarks provided clues that the administration is beginning to fear that ordinary Iraqis are turning against the United States. Without their support, the U.S. intervention is likely to fail.

"Iraqi people face a challenge, and they face a choice," Bush said. "The terrorists want to return to the days of torture chambers and mass graves. The Iraqis who want peace and freedom must reject them and fight terror."

News of the Baghdad bombing arrived shortly after the president teed off at 7:30 a.m. By 8:15, the long lenses of TV cameras caught him talking into a cell phone, brow furrowed.

After conferring with a string of advisors, Bush cut short his round after the 11th hole and rushed back to his ranch. As he spoke before the television cameras, his face was tense as he argued that such attacks are a sign not of a failure of U.S. policy, but of its success.

"Every sign of progress in Iraq adds to the desperation of the terrorists and the remnants of Saddam's brutal regime," the president said. "Iraq is on an irreversible course toward self-government and peace."

Previous attacks in Baghdad did not appear to upset White House routine or White House confidence. When a car bomb killed at least 17 people at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad less than two weeks ago, Bush's public schedule did not change and the only public White House reaction was a brief statement from a junior spokeswoman.

But Tuesday's truck bombing in Baghdad clearly struck a nerve. And the Jerusalem bombing added to the concern, jeopardizing Bush's efforts to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In Washington, administration officials acknowledged they had many reasons to be gloomy.

For one thing, the Baghdad bombing was likely to dishearten Americans whose support is crucial for the reconstruction effort. Some experts have predicted that a large-scale attack might turn American public opinion against the intervention in Iraq.

"This is a terrible tragedy and it can't help but intimidate some people, even though our government's response will be to redouble our efforts," one State Department official said.

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