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Terrorism's Challenge

THE stalemate in the Gulf brings with it the possibility of a shadow war of terrorism. Last week's call for an Islamic ``holy war'' against the US by Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is ominous. Even before his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein had been developing close ties with independent terrorist groups such as that headed by Abu Nidal. The State Department reports that two of the most radical Palestinian leaders, Abu Abbas and George Habash, are now operating from Baghdad.

Terrorism is one of the most dangerous weapons Saddam Hussein can use against the West and its developing alliance in the Persian Gulf. Experience shows that democracies are sometimes unnerved by political violence. Faced with an embargo and a widespread opposition to his actions, Saddam may try to disrupt world consensus and the military coalition in the Gulf through terrorist acts.

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A proliferation of terrorism could bolster those in the US who feel the answer to the crisis is an immediate ``surgical'' strike on Iraqi positions.

A solution to the crisis through creative diplomacy, however, would be both more desirable from a humanitarian standpoint and more effective in stabilizing the region. War should be only a last resort. Franz Kafka once noted that World War I was the result of ``a terrible lack of imagination.'' Terrorism threatens to provoke the US into a military strike that could actually endanger the world consensus against Saddam and turn opinion against the US. That consensus is growing, as reenforcements of Syrian, Egyptian, French, and British troops show.

In the Vietnam war, the Vietcong guerrillas helped turn the Vietnamese people against the US by getting Americans to fire on local populations. The Vietcong would shoot from churches and villages to provoke GIs. US forces eventually learned not to return fire.

The hour makes great demands on US intelligence agencies. In the event of terrorist acts, careful assessments must be made as to what group is involved. Islamic groups have their own agenda - often independent of Saddam. The US and allied forces must not misstep. The impulse to punch back fast must be checked.

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