BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 26 — In purely military terms, the rocket attack Sunday morning on a hotel being used by Paul D. Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense and a leading architect of the war against Saddam Hussein, meant little.
But the strike is a serious setback for the Bush administration as it tries to persuade the world to focus on the positives of the American occupation, on falling crime and new schools, on cleaner streets and freer speech.
The guerrillas can win merely by creating chaos.
Instead, it is a reminder that after easily toppling Mr. Hussein, the United States is struggling against a continuing guerrilla resistance, and struggling even though the guerrillas are badly trained and ill equipped.
But the guerrillas have two great advantages. First, the United States has been reluctant to use its full might against them, for fear of turning civilians against the occupation and inflaming public opinion worldwide.
Second, the guerrillas can win merely by creating chaos. As long as they are killing soldiers and Iraqi civilians, the Bush administration will have a difficult time convincing Americans that Iraq is becoming more stable — and in winning the foreign investment that Iraq's economy needs.
By that score, the attack on Sunday, which killed an American colonel and wounded 16 other people, was especially damaging. Mr. Wolfowitz came to Iraq hoping to underscore the progress the administration has made, and to persuade investors to come and help Iraq rebuild. He did not back away even after he and his rattled aides were evacuated from the smoking floors of their hotel.
But the attack sent the opposite message, by underscoring the vulnerability of even the best-protected part of the capital.
There are many Iraqis whose confidence can make a real difference in the immediate future — like entrepreneurs considering new investments, wealthy merchants wondering whether to keep their families here and ordinary Iraqis wondering whether they can safely enter political life. For them, the American military's inability to assure the safety of one of its most senior officials is a frightening sign.
The United States is doing everything it can to fight their fears. All over the city, the occupying authorities have put up large billboards featuring bucolic scenes of date palms arched over a river bank. Inspirational messages are splashed over the pretty pictures. "Baghdad is getting better," says one.
That message still holds, Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who as commander of the First Armored Division is in charge of security in Baghdad, said at a news conference after Sunday's blast.
Ordinary Iraqis seem to agree that security is improving. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, crime appears to have fallen since summer. On Sunday, ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, allied forces lifted the overnight curfew in Baghdad for the first time since April.
But the security gains may be fragile. In the absence of an effective Iraqi police force, American troops must patrol the streets and try to contain both criminals and guerrillas. That makes the American troops both vulnerable and essential to maintaining the improvement that the occupation boasts of.
So 150,000 American and other allied troops continue to be on the front lines of the streets of Iraq, facing a low-level war that is not going well.
After dropping in September, American troop deaths have risen this month, and the number of ambushes on the troops has climbed steadily. Iraqi police officers and government officials, who are viewed by the guerrillas as collaborators with occupation forces, are often attacked. Little is really known about the guerrillas, who can operate in very small groups but seem to have enough organization to direct the choice and timing of attacks.
Some outside military experts, like James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, have said more American troops would deter attacks. But more troops are unlikely over all.
For now, American military strategists appear to have decided that the best way to overcome the guerrilla resistance is to pour more troops into the Sunni Triangle, the region west and north of Baghdad where support for Mr. Hussein is greatest. Their plan is to draw out the guerrillas to destroy them, a strategy that risks civilian casualties.
Even if the strategy is effective, it may take months to make a major difference. In the meantime, the residents of Baghdad may find themselves bracing for more attacks.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company