Yesterday's shooting down of a US Chinook helicopter near Fallujah may have a disproportionate psychological impact on US military operations in Iraq and on US public opinion. The attack was without any doubt a disaster for American forces. With 15 personnel reported killed and many more injured, it was the deadliest such incident since the war officially ended last May. But its significance will be greatly magnified by its context.
The perception, in America itself and abroad, is that the security situation in Iraq is deteriorating, rather than improving as President George Bush claims. US-led coalition forces are now being subjected to an average of over 30 attacks daily. Hardly a day passes without news of one or more US fatalities. Far from being accepted as routine, this toll appears to be convincing more and more ordinary Americans that Mr Bush and his officials are not in control of a situation that they, uniquely, created.
Yesterday's violence follows one of the worst weeks in Iraq since the invasion began, marked by suicide bomb attacks on "soft targets" such as the Red Cross and dozens of civilian in addition to military deaths. Arguments about the extent to which foreign radicals, possibly aided or organized by al-Qaida, are involved, or who is to blame in Washington for faulty or distorted pre-war intelligence assessments, are almost beside the point as long as this maelstrom continues unchecked. The bottom line is relentless violence and mayhem and a US leadership that appears powerless to stop it. This perception that Mr Bush's Iraq campaign lacks direction and is one over which he is losing control is exemplified, even symbolized, by the dramatic loss of the Chinook. This sense of rudderlessness may prove to be even more damaging to him in the long run than the many controversies that still surround his decision to go to war in the first place.
The US military has some specific questions to answer. One is why the relatively slow-moving Chinook, carrying troops going on leave, was routed so close to Fallujah, perhaps the single biggest trouble spot since the occupation began. Another is whether the helicopter was equipped with counter-measures or deflector gear of the kind designed to protect against heat-seeking missiles.
The menace posed by shoulder-held missiles was already well-established. Hundreds, if not thousands, of the weapons are unaccounted for, following the coalition's signal failure to secure Saddam's numerous arms dumps. The weapons have been used to threaten Baghdad's international airport, which is why it is still largely closed to non-military flights, and two smaller US helicopters have been shot down in recent months. A proffered $500 reward for each surface-to-air missile does not seem to have lessened this danger. Yet US force protection commanders need only study the Red Army's experience in Afghanistan or that of the Israelis in south Lebanon to know how devastating, even decisive, these weapons can be. The Chinook disaster makes the world's most technologically advanced military power look yet more vulnerable than it did before - and thus will the psychological impact of the attack be magnified even further, in terms of the encouragement it will afford those who physically oppose the American presence.
Donald Rumsfeld, who was the chief architect of the Iraq campaign and is still, surprisingly, the US secretary of defense, said the shooting-down was a tragedy. "Your heart goes out to the families." In this at least he is correct. Our hearts go out to all those, Iraqi and American, British and other, who continue to die or suffer injury in this unnecessary, avoidable, unfinished war. But what neither he nor Mr Bush and others among Washington's warrior class will say is how they are going to stop it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003