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JEFF JACOBY

The war on US didn't begin on 9/11

THE WAR we are in didn't begin on Sept. 11, 2001. It began 22 years earlier.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Islamist radicals stormed the US embassy in Tehran and, with the support of the Ayatollah Khomeini, proceeded to hold 52 Americans hostage for the next 15 months. The Carter administration's response -- an embargo on Iranian oil, a break in diplomatic relations, and a botched rescue attempt the following April -- was feeble and inept. It was also the start of a pattern that would be repeated time and again in the years and administrations that followed.

When American citizens living in Lebanon were abducted -- and some of them tortured and killed -- by Iranian- and Syrian-backed terrorists between 1982 and 1991, the United States reacted not with a terrible swift sword, but with a pathetic arms-for-hostages ransom scheme. When a massive car bomb at the US embassy in Beirut murdered 63 people in April 1983, and another attack in October killed 241 Marines in their barracks, the Reagan administration promised vengeance, but in the end merely withdrew US troops from Lebanon.

And so it went when TWA Flight 847 was hijacked and Navy diver Robert Stethem murdered in 1985. When the cruise liner Achille Lauro was seized and Leon Klinghoffer shot dead in his wheelchair. When Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Scotland. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. When dozens of Americans were murdered by Arab terrorists in Israel. When two US military compounds in Saudi Arabia were destroyed in 1996, leaving 26 dead and more than 500 wounded. When Al Qaeda blew up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When the USS Cole was attacked in 2000.

Atrocity followed atrocity, but the fury of the United States was never aroused. The terrorists attacked us again and again, but Washington retaliated with only half-hearted gestures and empty rhetoric.

No, the terror war didn't start on the 11th of September. What happened on 9/11 is that America began fighting back. And the counterattack was launched not from Washington but from the skies over southeastern Pennsylvania, when the heroic passengers of United Flight 93 rose against the terrorists, and aborted the fourth attack.

In the two years since they went down fighting, much has changed in the terror war. The Taliban regime that harbored Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is no more, and thousands of terrorists have been captured or killed. Osama bin Laden is on the run, his ability to wreak terror crippled. Saddam Hussein, a key terrorist ally, has been brought down, and the United States is rebuilding Iraq into a stable democracy.

Most important of all, American eyes have opened to the threat from Islamofascism, the totalitarian ideology that has succeeded Nazism and communism as the foremost menace to the norms of civilization. The US president understands, as he put it earlier this week, "that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness."

But if much has been accomplished in the war on terrorism, the worst sponsors of terror nonetheless remain untouched. We have taken the fight to the terrorists, but we have not yet taken on the states that are their mainstay and refuge: Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. The governments of those three countries, more than any other, were responsible for Sept. 11 and the 22 years of terrorism that preceded it. Until they are toppled or transformed, the war against us will go on.

Iraq is the central theater in the war against terrorism because the terror mafia is determined to prevent the emergence of a stable and democratic Arab country. The president says that as liberty puts down Iraqi roots, the terrorists will retreat. But retreat to where? To oblivion? No -- back across the border to the terror strongholds they are coming from: Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.

For years, the State Department has identified the theocratic dictatorship in Iran as the world's foremost sponsor of terrorism. For almost as long, it has charged the Ba'athist regime in Syria with providing safe haven to terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia spawned not only Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 9/11 hijackers, but the petrodollars and Wahhabi fanaticism that have long sustained the terror mills. Regime change in Tehran, Damascus, and Riyadh is essential to the eradication of Middle East terrorism. It is time the administration began saying so explicitly.

How best to effect that change is a question for the experts. It need not necessarily involve military force. Diplomatic and financial support for Iran's democratic resistance, for example, might well be enough to topple the hated mullahs who rule the country.

We are in a fight to the death. Either America will destroy the terror masters or the terror masters will keep destroying Americans. Let us strive to be like the heroes of Flight 93 -- to have the moral clarity to see what must be done, and the strength of will to do it.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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