This is a strange, confusing time for Americans as we bump along the road toward armed conflict with Iraq while some of our old allies and our own people fill the boulevards of major cities with protests against war.

Last weekend, millions of anti-war demonstrators paraded through the streets of Washington, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver and cities in Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.

We knew a circumstance similar to this one in the 1960s and 1970s when young people on college campuses and in big cities protested the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

This time, however, many of the demonstrators are older. They are the parents and grandparents of youngsters who could be called to fight Saddam Hussein's military forces. When they were young, many demonstrated against the Korea and Vietnam wars.

At the same time that the streets are pulsating with anti-war rhetoric, the Bush administration is having difficulty persuading such friends as France, Russia, and Germany that it is in the interest of all of us to strip Hussein of his lethal weapons.

Perhaps people in those countries or here don't recall that French and English appeasement of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s simply made more ravenous his appetite for conquest. The fundamental problem with our allies today is that many of their citizens are opposed to following the United States into war with Hussein because they do not trust President Bush. Domestic politics dictate that they distance themselves from Washington at this crucial time.

But it should be understood that those who oppose war with Iraq are just as patriotic as those of us who support it.

Many people the world over are asking why Iraq is our main target when Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorists are considered just as vicious as Iraq. The same is true of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il who has violated a 1994 agreement to halt the development of nuclear weapons.

It is true that Hussein has continuously defied its U.N. disarmament obligations. But Hussein is only one of the cruel culprits in today's violent world.

In a taped broadcast on Feb. 11 and believed by U.S. intelligence officials to be authentic, Osama bin Laden called upon his followers, as well as Iraqis, to draw the enemy (America, Israel and their allies) into "long, close and exhausting fighting, taking advantage of camouflaged positions in plains, farms, mountains, and cities" Bin Laden also emphasized the importance of "martyrdom" in fighting the enemy, an apparent call for suicide attacks.

Appearing on CNN last week, Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, estimated that war with Iraq could be concluded in two weeks. But he also noted that the Bush administration has failed to persuade many traditional allies that war may be the only way to handle Iraqi provocations.

Clark even suggested that the president go abroad to convince the leaders and citizens of allied countries that war with Iraq is necessary. British Prime Tony Blair hit the nail on the head when he declared last week that "ridding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity."

Nearly every day, the television news shows pictures of Hussein seated at the head of a long table with his sycophantic aides, like so many clones, lining both sides of the table.

At a critical time like this, it is hard to forget the words spoken Lyndon Johnson as the horrors of Vietnam closed in around him. To his close friend and mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, Johnson conceded that it is easy to get into war, but often hard to get out.

Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld obviously do not expect Iraq to become a perilous quagmire as did Korea and Vietnam. And though they may not know what surprises Hussein has for our armed forces, they do know that he must be stripped of his lethal weapons and be forced - at last - to obey U.N. mandates.

E-mail: tthom66085@aol.com

© 2003 Hearst Newspapers

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