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Chalk up America's weakened influence in the Arab world as collateral damage from this week's U.S.-British air strikes against Iraq. While it remains to be seen whether this country's foreign policy wounds are deep or merely superficial, the decision to bomb air defense installations near Baghdad was a risky one.

The air strikes probably accomplished two main objectives, both of them valid but perhaps not worth the damage to President Bush's desire to rebuild the eroding international anti-Saddam Hussein coalition that defeated Iraq a decade ago.

First, the strikes hit improved radar installations and command radars used by Iraq to target and fire at air patrols in no-fly zones. Sooner or later, those shots will lead to an air crew loss. Improved Iraqi capabilities heighten that chance, and the strike was a proportional response to Iraqi actions. But Iraqi anti-aircraft efforts have been continuous, and staging the counterstrike so early in the Bush administration clearly also carries political importance.

Second, Iraq has been rattling sabers and talking jihad, purportedly recruiting a 300,000-man force to take Jerusalem from Israel for the Palestinians. In that sense, the strikes were well timed as a warning.

But there are definite and immediate drawbacks as well. At a time when Israeli-Palestinian violence is on the verge of warfare and tensions throughout the Arab world are high, strikes against an Arab leader inevitably invite at least lip-service condemnation from nations we seek to retain as regional allies.

Make no mistake: Saddam Hussein deserves everything he gets. He heads a totalitarian government that relies on secret police to retain control, and enjoys the support of only an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the people in an ethnically divided land whose residents suffer terribly under his rule.

More importantly, he has provided ample evidence of the threat he poses to regional neighbors, and he has actively sought, even since the Persian Gulf War, to buy or develop weapons of mass destruction that could be used against any country, even America.

But the reality is that he remains firmly in power, and the air strikes have solidified the image he sells of himself as martyr and true leader of Arab opposition to the Satan of the Western World. And the attack comes as sanctions-fatigue sets in throughout the Mideast and Europe.

The anti-Saddam coalition has fractured, and Bush's attempts to restore it are made nil by the attack. Egypt sent post-strike trade delegations to Baghdad in a show of Arab solidarity. France has condemned the strikes as illegal. Germany pointedly withheld public comment, while Russia and China delivered the expected condemnations. Poland and Canada voiced support - and promptly paid the price as Iraq, increasingly successful in smuggling out oil not monitored in the U.N. oil-for-food deal, stopped importing their goods, including massive amounts of Canadian wheat.

Bush has followed through on yet another campaign theme, that of a get-tough attitude toward Iraq. But if coalition-strengthening is indeed an early goal of the Bush administration, this is an odd start.

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