A convenient firefight

A day before Bush's Iraq speech, U.S. troops are on the move against insurgents.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 9, 2007 2:38PM (EST)

We managed to check our cynicism last night when we heard that the United States had launched airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets in Somalia. While many have criticized the White House for focusing on Iraq to the exclusion of the larger terrorist threat -- and while the Somali airstrikes sure will be a nice way for George W. Bush to rebut that criticism Wednesday night -- maybe the administration really did all of a sudden have a lead on people who bombed U.S. embassies almost a decade ago.

Then we saw the news on CNN this morning: Hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi troops are battling Iraqi insurgents in central Baghdad, and U.S. military sources say that as many as 50 of the insurgents have already been killed.

Does this strike anyone else as just a little, oh, convenient?

The White House is understandably sensitive to the idea that American troops aren't accomplishing anything in Iraq now -- or worse, that they're simply stuck there as sitting ducks while the president thinks through his new "way forward." When Tony Snow was asked the other day about the long wait for Bush's new plan, he bristled: "It's not the case that people have returned to barracks and corked up the cannons and said, 'We'll just await further orders.'"

No, it's not like that, and what better way to show it than with a big, deadly firefight just a day before the president's speech -- the one in which he'll talk about how U.S. troops are working closely with Iraqi forces, making progress against the insurgents and fighting terrorists over there so we don't have to face them over here.

Maybe we're wrong. Maybe we were wrong not to assume the worst about the Somalia strikes, and maybe we're wrong now to suspect the worst about the Baghdad firefight. But desperate men do desperate things, and the president is about as desperate as they come right now. Bush has apparently known since at least September that he needs to change course in Iraq, but the White House avoided any public expressions of concern until after the November elections. Is there any reason to think that the White House wouldn't manipulate war tactics now for political reasons, too?

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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