TERRORISM may be the lethal wild card in the American confrontation with Iraq that could spin the entire crisis out of control and lead to warfare in the Middle East. Terrorists aligned with Saddam Hussein could pose a less manageable threat to the United States and its allies in the Gulf than Iraq's million-man army, due to the availability of chemical and biological weapons and to the West's failure to crush terrorist groups and their state sponsors over the past 20 years.
There is little question that the US is, or very soon will be, capable of rendering the Iraqi war machine useless. But the Palestinian and Lebanese/Iranian terrorist groups that now appear allied with Saddam, and could conceivably have chemical and biological weapons already, are much tougher to target. They are relatively independent operators with their own agendas. They have bases across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and even inside the US. In the event of Saddam's surrender or death, some of these groups may choose to carry on the fight under the rubric of avenging his humiliation and that of the Arab masses.
During the course of the crisis, we should expect terrorist attacks against Americans and our allies in the Middle East and Europe. Based on past performance by terrorists now associated with Saddam, those assaults could take many forms, and would probably be staged first in the Middle East.
Assassinations: President Mubarak of Egypt, Saudi and other Gulf royalty, and even European and American political leaders could be hit. Attacks on them, their loved ones, or closest deputies would be designed to shake their confidence and participation in the Gulf.
Drive-by shootings: Soft targets, including busy downtown shopping areas in the Middle East, Europe, and the US could see machine-gun assaults on innocents. Such operations would have as their goal ``bringing the war home'' to Saddam's enemies and trying to make them force their leaders to withdraw from the Gulf.
Infrastructure sabotage: Like its allies, the US has refused to spend the money necessary to harden electricity and natural-gas supply lines, communications links, and other vital service networks against possible terrorist attacks. Hitting them effectively could sharply damage the economy and morale of the victim nation.
Bombing aircraft: While there is already a high state of alert at many airports, some of the terrorists allied with Saddam are among the most adept at penetrating such security. In the current climate, the bombing of another jumbo jet could not be ignored as President Bush has avoided dealing with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 which went down with 189 Americans Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland. The CIA determined by April of last year that Iran had paid for the bombing of Flight 103. Mr. Bush did not retaliate, thus sending the message that Americans can be massacred and the perpetrators can get away with it. If terrorists were to blow up another passenger plane or commit an atrocity of similar magnitude, Mr. Bush might be pushed to overreaction, launching general war against Iraq - perhaps before he has completed the diplomatic, political, and military preparation required for greatest success.
Even if Saddam has not provided chemical weapons to terrorists, it's possible that some may have acquired the highly lethal materials from Libya's dictator Muammar Qaddafi, or obtained them from the Iraqi weapons supply unbeknown to Saddam. In either case, the terrorists could attempt to launch an unauthorized chemical attack against civilian populations.
If such an action were taken successfully against Israel, the terrorists could trigger an Israeli nuclear response against Baghdad. To prevent such a nightmare scenario from developing, President Bush may feel pressured to hit Saddam before the current stalemate in the desert goes completely out of control.
Before the first provocation comes, possibly from these wild-card terrorist groups, Mr. Bush should tell the American people that the conflict over there could become terror over here. That's the price you pay for living in a world in which terrorists and their state supporters have been allowed to operate.