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Two weeks ago, our man in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid, managed to avoid a Little Bighorn-type catastrophe only because his armored vehicles were capable of hauling alpha out of a well-planned Fallujah ambush light-years faster and far more safely than poor George Custer’s unprotected 7th Cav ponies.

Two days later, the guerrillas struck Fallujah again with even more boldness and sophistication in an attack that tore up a police station and sprang almost 100 prisoners while simultaneously zapping the same Iraqi civil-defense headquarters where Abizaid almost got scalped.

Sources in Iraq report that guerrilla intell in this op was far superior to Abizaid’s counterintelligence: Guerrilla spies within the police force and civil guard told their goon pals the good general was coming to town and made sure they knew the layouts in detail of both objectives.

Iraq 2004 reminds me of Vietnam in the mid-’60s when our South Vietnamese allies were losing a battalion of infantry a week, towns such as Qui Nhon and Pleiku were under constant siege by Fallujah-style raids, and U.S. airfields in South Vietnam were frequently struck by a lethal mixture of sapper and indirect mortar fire.

President Lyndon B. Johnson responded in early ’65 with a bombing campaign that eventually led to our dropping three times the bomb tonnage we used during all of World War II on a Third World country about half the size of California. Then we slipped the South Viets additional war materiel, U.S. advisers, support units, Green Berets and enough cash – we hoped – to shore up their sputtering fighting machine.

The next escalation was the president’s most dreaded and most tragic, sending “American boys” to fight a war he’d promised during his ’64 campaign would be fought only by “Asian boys.” But LBJ figured he had three years to clean up the mess, nail a VC hat to the Oval Office wall and declare victory before the ’68 presidential elections.

Soon LBJ had committed 100,000 regular Army fighting men – a force both SecDef Robert McNamara and his theater commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, were banking would stem the VC tide. Except it didn’t. And as the enemy grew stronger and meaner, Bobby, Westy and most of the rest of the high brass kept assuring the commander in chief that the war would be a cakewalk as long as he sent bigger battalions and more resources. And so a snookered LBJ doubled our troop commitment, and then a similarly hooked Richard Nixon doubled it again.

But this time around, we’re not engaged in a game of mission impossible against a massive communist-supported force. For sure, there are many other hot spots like Fallujah, but the hit-and-run, mainly ankle-biter guerrillas will run out of steam – if we don’t let up.

What’s a worry is that our commanders there might have already been told to reduce their proven aggressive tactics and turn the heavy lifting over to a police force and civil guard who, as Fallujah just proved, clearly are several years away from fighting main events. And that’s because U.S. casualties at the rate of more than one dead soldier a day and a planeload of shot-up warriors a night won’t sit well with the American public between now and the November vote.

If the second generation of our soldiers now in the process of deploying to Iraq are ordered to set up little forts to hide behind, as we’re doing in Afghanistan, instead of kicking butt and coming to the aid of the Iraqi defenders, we’d better understand that we’ll be giving the initiative to the guerrillas. They’ll regain control of the contested countryside and thus the people – and our playing the election game by trying to keep our casualties down will set up the perfect conditions for a civil war where U.S. soldiers will become the meat in a bloody insurgent sandwich.

We can only hope that key presidential political advisers will stay away from the war-fighting biz and stick to their political imperatives. Maybe then Gen. Abizaid will be allowed to fight his war in Iraq without the powers that be tying his arms behind his back. We’ve done that too often since World War II, and of course have always lost.

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