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July 8, 2005

London Hit as Skepticism Grows on 'Terror War'

by Jim Lobe

Thursday's terror attacks against London's public transportation system, which reportedly killed at least 37 people, came amid indications of growing skepticism here about the effectiveness of U.S. President George W. Bush's "war on terrorism," the policy initiative that has earned him his highest public-approval ratings since September 2001.

The Gallup organization released a new survey just two days ago which found that a plurality of 41 percent of U.S. respondents believe that neither the U.S. and its allies nor the "terrorists" are currently winning the war and that a two-and-a-half year high of 20 percent of the public believe that the "terrorists are winning."

Thirty-six percent of respondents, nearly two-thirds of whom described themselves as Republicans, said the U.S. was winning the war, down sharply from 66 percent after the U.S.-supported ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan in January 2002, and 65 percent after U.S. troops captured Baghdad in April 2003.

"Not only did the poll reveal increasing public frustration with the war in Iraq and flagging presidential approval ratings," said Darren Carlson, Gallup's government and politics editor, "but it also showed the public is not too confident that the United States and its allies are winning the war against terrorism."

Whether Thursday's attacks will add to that skepticism and further erode public support for Bush's leadership remains to be seen, although, as noted by Carlson, the growing pessimism about the Iraq war makes him more vulnerable than at any other time since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Previous major bomb attacks give little clue. According to a Newsweek poll taken a week after the Madrid train bombings on March 11, 2004, a small majority of respondents said the attacks did not shake their confidence in Bush's strategy.

But in October 2002, just days after the bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed more than 200 people, mostly Australian tourists, public confidence in Bush's approach fell to an all-time low: just 32 percent of respondents said they thought Washington was winning the war at the time.

Adding to Bush's vulnerability at the moment, however, is the fact that most Democrats, who generally stood by the president on foreign-policy matters between the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon and the onset of last year's presidential election campaign in the spring of 2004, have been arguing for more than a year now that Bush's invasion of Iraq had diverted key resources and attention from the war against al-Qaeda and other hardline Islamist groups, effectively undermining that effort.

Analysts here clearly believe that al-Qaeda or an offshoot was indeed responsible for the London attacks. "It has all the earmarks of al-Qaeda," noted Dennis Ross, director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP) and a top U.S. Middle East negotiator under former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

He and other analysts noted the well-planned nature of the attacks, their simultaneity, and the timing to coincide with the first day of the Group of Eight (G-8) Summit at Gleneagles, Scotland – the world's central news event of the week – as hallmarks of an al-Qaeda-like operation.

The BBC reported that a previously unknown group calling itself "The Secret Organization of al-Qaeda in Europe" had claimed responsibility for the explosions. The group reportedly warned the "Danish and Italian government and all other crusaders" to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and that the attacks were carried out in "revenge from the British Zionist Crusader Government in retaliation for the massacres Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Some analysts pointed to a letter by Osama bin Laden himself that first surfaced June 20 in which he stated that he was "preparing for the next round of jihad."

"We want to give the good news to the Muslim ummah that, with the blessing of Almighty Allah, we have been successful in reorganizing ourselves and are going to launch a jihadi program that is absolutely in accordance with the changed situation."

In the same communiqué, he warned the leaders of Muslim countries cooperating with enemy efforts that they would be targeted. Over the past week, high-ranking diplomats from the Baghdad embassies of Egypt, Bahrain, and Pakistan – all countries that have been publicly urged by Washington to fully normalize relations with Iraq – were attacked by insurgents.

On Thursday, the al-Qaeda in Iraq group, reportedly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, announced that it had executed the charge d'affaires at the Egyptian mission who had been tapped to the first Arab ambassador accredited to Baghdad, Imad al-Sharif, who was abducted from near his home earlier this week.

Michael Chertoff, the secretary for Homeland Security, indicated he also believed that an al-Qaeda-like group was involved but stressed that Washington had no "specific credible information of an imminent attack here." His department raised the terrorism warning alert to "orange" and ordered extra precautions on public transportation systems, especially the rail system.

At the same time, he said London's bombings were "not an occasion for undue anxiety" in the United States.

Bush, who arrived at Gleneagles Wednesday, expressed his solidarity with the British and repeated an oft-used line that "the ideology of hope" will win over "the ideology of hate." He also said the bombings showed that "the war on terror goes on."

While the latter observation was unquestionably accurate, it begged the larger question of how that war is defined and carried out.

With polls over the last two months showing a sharp plunge in public approval for the way Bush has carried out the war in Iraq, the president last week tried to rally the nation once again in a primetime speech that was clearly designed to frame U.S. efforts in Iraq – an issue on which the public shown greater skepticism – as central to the "war on terror," the issue on which his approval ratings have been highest.

Just before the speech, a New York Times/CNN poll, for example, found that public approval for his handling of Iraq was just 37 percent, while approval for his "campaign against terrorism" stood at 52 percent, 15 percentage points higher.

Bush's renewed efforts to associate the Iraq war with the war on terror, which drew loud complaints from Democrats and the media, may not be as effective as in the past. However, a succession of polls in recent months has shown that the public has come increasingly to see the two wars as separate.

Indeed, for the first since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a plurality of the public, by a 50-47 percent margin, sees Iraq as distinct from the war on terrorism, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released last week. The same poll found that a similar plurality believes the war in Iraq has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism, and 53-percent majority now believes that the Iraq invasion was itself a mistake.

The fact that al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates has now struck in the heart of another western capital – and Washington's closest ally, no less – could add to the growing sense that the Iraq war was and remains a diversion from the fight against al-Qaeda, despite the reportedly growing participation of radical Islamists in that conflict.

At the same time, according to Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), the attacks could favor Bush, at least in the short term.

"Whenever there are bombings close to home, it generates fear, and fear intensifies concern about terrorism and makes people marginally more receptive to the kind of frames that Bush has used," he said.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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