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Explosion in Mosul

Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A26

WHEN THE BLAST ripped through the mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez outside Mosul yesterday, U.S. soldiers responded with the pragmatism and courage we've seen so often in Iraq. Those who were not mortally injured picked themselves up, overturned lunch tables and used them to carry their wounded comrades. According to reporter Jeremy Redmon of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, who witnessed the attack, medics rushed to the tent, where they found a grievous toll: at least 22 dead and more than 60 wounded in the worst single attack on U.S. troops since the war began. But the soldiers rallied; one sergeant, blown off his chair, stripped off his shirt and wrapped it around a wounded comrade. Maj. James Zollar, acting commander of the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, told his officers, "This is a tragic, tragic thing for us, but we still have missions."

President Bush's response was similar, and equally right: The latest violence in Iraq, he said, would not stop the elections scheduled for Jan. 30 -- which is the intent of those who attacked the U.S. base. The Army of Ansar al-Sunna, which asserted responsibility, has a simple agenda: It wishes to establish a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship. Like the terrorists who set off car bombs in the Shiite towns of Karbala and Najaf on Sunday, killing at least 64 people, this enemy offers Iraqis, and the world, a stark choice between those who would seek to build a new political order based on tolerance and democracy and those who would replace Saddam Hussein with another totalitarian regime. Thanks in part to the mistakes of the Bush administration, which has failed to deploy enough troops to places such as Mosul, it's not yet clear which side will win this fateful battle; as Mr. Bush acknowledged Monday, the insurgents are "having an effect."

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Yet it ought to be clear, at least, where the vital interests of the United States and its democratic allies lie. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a visit to Iraq yesterday, summed it up well. "Whatever people's feelings or beliefs about the removal of Saddam Hussein and the wisdom of that," he said, "there surely is only one side to be on in what is now very clearly a battle between democracy and terror. And on the one side you have people who desperately want to make the democratic process work, and want to have the same type of democratic freedoms other parts of the world enjoy, and on the other side people who are killing and intimidating and trying to destroy a better future for Iraq."

Those who struck yesterday hope a spectacular and bloody attack will drive the United States out of Iraq, as it was driven from Lebanon and Somalia, and doom those Iraqis who now risk their lives for the elections. That's why the only possible answer is that of those brave Virginia soldiers: to pick up the wounded, pray for the dead and return to the mission.

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