WASHINGTON—President Bush said Tuesday that the United States wouldn't be deterred in Iraq by the suicide bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, but lawmakers and experts saw the attack as a grave escalation in a guerrilla war that could endanger the U.S.-led reconstruction effort.
"We are at a critical stage," warned Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert with the RAND Corp., a prominent research center. "We have to arrest this escalation or it will continue to gain its own momentum."
Tuesday's bombing —the deadliest terrorist strike ever against the United Nations—appeared aimed at demonstrating the inability of American forces in Iraq to maintain security, which all agree is crucial to restarting the economy and building the foundations for a stable Iraqi-led government.
"What they are seeking to do is block nation-building," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute. "The message is: `We will attack anyone who is assisting the United States.'"
The explosives-packed truck blew up outside the former Canal Hotel, which houses the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing its chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and at least 19 other people, nearly two weeks after a similar bombing at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad claimed 19 lives.
The two blasts showed much greater sophistication, planning and killing-power than the near-daily hit-and-run strikes that have cut power and water and killed nearly 70 American and British troops and a Danish soldier since Bush declared an end to major combat operations May 1.
U.S. officials blame the guerrilla campaign on supporters of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and Islamic radicals, and there was suspicion that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network could have been involved in Tuesday's blast.
The Bush administration says the American-led effort to rebuild Iraq's decrepit infrastructure, economy and political system is forging ahead despite the violence, and Bush said Tuesday that the latest attack was aimed at thwarting that progress.
"The terrorists who struck today showed their fear of progress and their hatred of peace," Bush said in a statement from at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"Iraqi people face a challenge and a choice. The terrorists want to return to the days of torture chambers and mass graves," the president said. "The Iraqis who want peace and freedom must reject them and fight terror. And the United States and many in the world will be there to help them."
Several current and former U.S. officials expressed hope that the bombing might prompt greater international military and political participation in Iraqi reconstruction.
"Every single country should say to itself, `We can't let the terrorists win. We cannot let the symbol of international peace be brought down,'" said a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue.
But some experts warned that the United States could be in danger of losing control of the situation.
Unless measures are taken to blunt the guerrilla campaign, these experts said, ordinary Iraqis will grow more disillusioned with the United States and more willing to support groups bent on driving out the American-led coalition.
"It's not just about more troops. It's a recognition that we are faced with perhaps a more resilient insurgency than we have imagined," Hoffman said. "We are now transitioning from opportunistic strikes to attacks that seem much more calculated and intentional."
The United States, some experts said, must take immediate steps to reassure ordinary Iraqis by accelerating work to restore electricity, water and other basic services, deliver humanitarian aid, create jobs and accelerate police training and the formation of an Iraqi army.
The American-led military coalition, they said, also must intensify and refine its counterinsurgency operations, employing better intelligence and anti-terrorism tactics, and possibly expanding the nearly 150,000-strong occupation force.
"This is a war," Cordesman said. "We have watched people go from sniping to grenades to rocket-propelled grenades to mortars to suddenly larger bombs."
The bombing prompted fresh criticism by Democrats of the Bush administration's refusal to send more U.S. troops to Iraq and support a greater U.N. role in reconstruction.
The attack "should explode the illusions of postwar progress and stability the Bush administration continues to cling to," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a Democratic presidential candidate. "To achieve victory and a lasting peace in Iraq, we must directly involve the United Nations and commit greater force, more resources and stronger leadership."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.