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War within the war: shaping perceptions

How conflict is viewed will influence larger outcome.

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However fierce the fighting on the ground turns out to be, another war is under way that may end up being just as important to the ultimate outcome of a conflict in Iraq: the war of perceptions.

Whether the war is seen as one of liberation and international security, or of imperialist occupation and part of a crusade against Islam, will go a long way in shaping global security, international relations, and perceptions of the US for years to come.

For President Bush, this is the first war of the 21st century. Rather than a defensive fight against a declared foe typical of past wars, this one is against a gathering threat. But it is as much about winning the world over to a way of perceiving global security as it is about disarmament or regime change.

In the short term, this war of perceptions will determine which side in the long diplomatic debate over Iraq is judged to have been right. Long term, it could reverse - or cement - America's deteriorating image around the globe, with heavy implications for the war on terrorism

Depending on the way the Islamic world and Arab countries in particular react, the threat of a "clash of civilizations" that has lingered since the Sept. 11 attacks could either dissipate - or find new life.

"Earlier wars were state against state. The connection between one side and the people of the other or the rest of the world was largely nonexistent - but that has changed," says David Davenport, a diplomacy and foreign policy analyst at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

A number of benchmarks will be key in determining the outcome of this battle of perceptions, experts say:

• Casualties, especially among Iraq's civilian and Muslim population, which could enrage Arab populations. Heavy casualties among US forces, meanwhile, could erode US support for the war.

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