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Daniel Benjamin letter: Bush blunders play into distorted claims of jihadists

From the people who brought you Saddam Hussein's mushroom cloud and the secret Iraqi-al-Qaida alliance comes a new specter to trouble our sleep: jihadist Iraq.

From the people who brought you Saddam Hussein's mushroom cloud and the secret Iraqi-al-Qaida alliance comes a new specter to trouble our sleep: jihadist Iraq.

In a speech this week at the American Enterprise Institute, Vice President Dick Cheney used this nightmare vision to lash those, such as Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., who have argued that it is time to begin withdrawing U.S. forces. "Iraq is part of a larger plan of imposing Islamic radicalism across the broader Middle East, making Iraq a terrorist haven and a staging ground for attacks against other nations," Cheney said. "In light of the commitments our country has made, and given the stated intentions of the enemy, those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions: Would the United States and other free nations be better off or worse off with (Abu Musab) al-Zarqawi, (Osama) bin Laden and (Ayman) Zawahiri in control of Iraq? Would we be safer or less safe with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?"

The suggestion that a jihadist takeover in Iraq would follow a U.S. withdrawal verges on preposterous. It is the latest in a parade of straw men dispatched to scare up support for wrongheaded and failed policies.

There is no question that the jihadists would like to seize a country as a base for wider operations. But they have nowhere near the capacity to achieve this in Iraq. Zarqawi's al-Qaida in Iraq and other radical Islamist groups have bloodied U.S. forces, the fledgling Iraqi government and the Shiite population. The jihadist organizations lack the heavy weapons and the manpower that would be required to seize control of Baghdad, the capital, to capture and hold large tracts of territory that are occupied by hostile Shiites and Kurds who outnumber Sunnis four to one, or to run the country.

The insurgents might remain a formidable force by evading those who try to hunt them down - as they have done with U.S. and Iraqi forces - but they could not conceivably prevail in the full-scale battles that the takeover of Iraq would entail. Only with the rapid influx of tens of thousands of fighters from outside Iraq could jihadists win control of the country. That scenario is far-fetched.

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Make no mistake: Much of western Iraq is and will remain a terrorist sanctuary. But neither U.S. forces nor Shiite-dominated Iraqi military units will be able to do much about that against an enemy that has excellent early warning and the capacity to slip away. It will be years before an Iraqi intelligence service can root out these networks.

The real threat is civil war. But here, too, it is not clear how much the U.S. can do to prevent it. If the Shiites and Kurds do not ameliorate the grievances of Iraqi Sunnis, civil war is probable. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq in such circumstances would at best delay the inevitable.

There is a rich irony to the administration's argument about a jihadist Iraq. In the run-up to the war, the Bush team repeatedly underestimated the danger radical Islamists posed to U.S. plans for Iraq. The Pentagon, for example, knew well before the invasion of Iraq that al-Zarqawi was in the country, traveling far and wide to prepare for the insurgency he planned to mount once the United States invaded.

Moreover, the administration had ample intelligence that the toxin ricin was being produced at al-Zarqawi's base camp in the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq - outside the reach of Saddam's government. The military drew up plans for an attack. But the administration declined to strike for reasons that remain unclear. Later, it portrayed al-Zarqawi as the key link between Saddam and al-Qaida. We now know that was false.

Now the administration holds up al-Zarqawi as the ultimate threat. Opponents of near-term withdrawal of U.S. forces say there will be a surge in attacks against American troops as they begin to depart. To be sure, the insurgents will want to make it seem that we were driven out. But the level of attacks in many categories - especially suicide bombings - has grown enormously without any drawdown.

By blundering in Iraq, the Bush administration has played right into two jihadist claims: First, that we are determined to occupy Muslim countries, steal their wealth and destroy their faith; and second, that we are a paper tiger that cannot accept casualties. By staying in Iraq, we confirm the former for many Muslims around the world and stoke recruitment and radicalization. By leaving, we confirm the latter, thereby encouraging jihadists.

Our departure from Iraq needs to be orderly and serve our own interests. How long it takes should be, unlike our occupation of the country, carefully planned. It should not be postponed by the threat of some imagined cataclysm.

Benjamin served on the National Security Council staff from 1994 to 1999. He is co-author of "The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right."

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