Analysis: Why Downed Planes and U.S. POWs Won't Deter Bush

Prisoners. Cross-fire. Surface-to-surface missiles. These are the keywords from the search engines of previous wars - Vietnam, Lebanon, the Gulf, Somalia. They are predictable reactions to familiar itches, but they are off the main road of the Iraq war, which is the march to Baghdad.

That is where the campaign will be decided. The campaign is so far being conducted along the lines and at the pace set by the American and British forces. A downed plane and the capture of prisoners are painful, but nonetheless marginal to the mission.

The U.S. Central Command tried to frame the picture somewhat differently than the media did. Arabic-speaking Lieutenant General John Abizaid was sent to the briefing. He is General Tommy Franks' deputy and possible successor, perhaps even the High Commissioner of Iraq. He is an American officer of Arab descent, a veteran of missions to Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Abizaid and his operations officer, Vincent Brooks, reminded the reporters in Qatar and the viewers at home that the enemy had repeatedly violated the rules of war and military honor, from murdering American prisoners to staging a surrender and then attacking the American forces to which they surrendered.

It is too soon to say that broadcasts of the captive American soldiers from the maintenance company from Fort Bliss, Texas, most of whom are residents of President Bush's home state, will have a negative impact on public support for Bush's war policy.

The opposite can be expected: The disgust caused by the pictures of the murders, the imprisonment and the shooting into the Euphrates in the hope of killing Western pilots who might have fallen there will paint the Iraqis as distant relatives of the Japanese and their atrocities during World War II.

The idea of "awe and shock," developed at the National Defense Institute in Washington in 1996, specifically referred to the fanaticism of imperial Japan, a fanaticism that could only be shocked out of the Japanese by the atomic bomb.

American military doctrine rules out the use of nuclear weapons, so the U.S. is making do with precision bombing of the Iraqi leadership without harming innocents. But fostering the image of the Iraqis as bloodthirsty aids implementation of the "awe and shock" doctrine.

The affair of the prisoners, of both sexes, will only intensify Bush's determination and the popular support he now enjoys. This will be a turning point in the campaign for both domestic and international legitimacy for the war, and it will not drive Bush out of Iraq the way Syria's capture of navigator John Goodman drove Reagan out of Lebanon, or the downed Black Hawk helicopter drove Bill Clinton out of Mogadishu.

Brooks noted that the Republican Guards awaiting the American-Anglo ground forces outside the cameras' field of vision have already been attacked from the air. At the end of one of those sorties, a Patriot battery knocked a Tornado out of the air.

Military alliances are a complex affair. In Afghanistan, American pilots killed Canadian soldiers, in Iraq, the American surface-to-air batteries kill American and British pilots (and this is the time to breathe a sigh of relief that the Israel Defense Forces did not insist on operating inside the American lines in western Iraq, either in 1991 or now).

The coalition's main effort is focused on closing in on Baghdad. That effort is evident from the amount of forces invested in it - and, incidentally, in the number of Iraqi troops that are being circumvented and left unharmed, to serve as the skeleton of a new Iraqi army in the post-Saddam era. The American ground forces and the Marines are in the midst of a pincer movement from the southeast to the center of the country.

The IDF's remaining fears about what is going on in western Iraq are explained by the fact that the region, which tops the list of Israel's concerns, has so far only been given special operations forces, operating in teams. Even if there are dozens of such teams, which is a considerable amount in terms of those units, that is not enough to totally calm the IDF's General Staff. Only when there are brigades and divisions in western Iraq, fully deployed over the entire area, and not merely observers and reconnaissance units looking for possible missile launchers, will the Rabin Camp in downtown Tel Aviv breathe a sigh of relief.

Abizaid, following Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, tried to repair the impression left the day before by Franks' talk about "at least two dozen" Scud launchers whose fate is unknown since the end of the 1991 war. The IDF estimates that there are only two or three launchers.

So far, no evidence has been found of the presence of launchers, missiles, or chemical or biological payloads in western Iraq. The IDF's refusal as of Sunday to check off western Iraq was Scud-free is more the result of question marks than exclamation points. One question mark is whether any army, no matter how advanced and how tight the coordination between its planes and special forces, can foil every single launch before the last of the suspected sites has been covered, which will become possible when more forces are posted to the area.

A second question is how to explain certain events in the zone, like the movement of antiaircraft weapons to a particular site without any obvious reason. The IDF has no evidence that a mobile launcher is either in the area or on the way, or that a stationary launcher is hidden in some building from which the roof will be removed just before the launch. There is only a working assumption that refuses to negate that possibility.

Everything that happened Sunday to the Americans and the British, including the downing of the Tornado with a Patriot and the erroneous navigation by soldiers in a foreign land that led them into captivity, has happened to the IDF, during the war of attrition and Lebanon, among other wars. These are the kinds of events that shape assessments, but not campaigns.

In both American and Arab eyes, it was a difficult day on the southern front. In Israeli eyes, more important are the two ticking clocks, in Baghdad and western Iraq, which could come together as soon as tomorrow in a combined move that would end the war as far as Israel is concerned and open the way to the decisive stage for the coalition forces: the move from the killing fields (both land and air) prepared for the Republican Guards into the centers of power in Baghdad.