1.00pm - By RUPERT CORNWELL

WASHINGTON - As new violence erupted in Iraq on Thursday, politicians and commentators are wondering whether Wednesday's horrific murder of four Americans in Fallujah will prove a turning point in US involvement with Iraq - just as the similar murder of an American soldier ultimately led to withdrawal from Somalia 11 years ago.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, US television avoided the most gruesome images.

But yesterday no less sober a publication than the New York Times ran a large front page picture of two charred and mutilated bodies hanging from the bridge, surrounded by a crowd of gloating and jubilant Iraqis.

Other media outlets followed suit, driving the unexpurgated savagery of the fate of the four contractors into the consciousness of the general public.

Yesterday brought no respite to the violence around the city that has become symbol of resistance to US occupation.

Three American soldiers were injured when a roadside bomb exploded close to a troop convoy near Fallujah.

In Ramadi, west of the city, a car bomb at a market killed six Iraqi civilians and wounded four others.

The official line is that the incident has only reinforced Washington's determination to see Iraq through to a successful conclusion, and that its perpetrators would be caught and punished.

In Baghdad, Paul Bremer, head of the coalition authority described the killings as "despicable, inexcusable and barbaric," and "a violation...of the foundations of a civilisation." The deaths of the four contractors, he w promised, "will not go unpunished."

Speaking during a visit to Germany yesterday, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, declared that the US would not be "run out" of Iraq.

The US had the ability to fight its enemies and defeat them, he went on, arguing that in war "it does sometimes take the loss of life to achieve a noble purpose."

Less openly acknowledged is the fact that the stakes, in terms of America's credibility and its global diplomatic and military strategy, are far higher than they were in 1993, when a US peacekeeping mission in Somalia ended a few weeks after a mob dragged the corpse of a US serviceman through the streets of the capital Mogadishu.

"Somalia was terrible, but we could walk away," the outspoken Republican Senator John McCain said.

Then, US national security was not threatened, but "we cannot afford to lose this".

However the Fallujah episode, coupled with the near simultaneous death of five US soldiers in an ambush by insurgents, has brought home how dangerous that part of Iraq has become.

It has also given the lie to claims by the Pentagon that the attacks which have taken the lives of over 460 US soldiers since the war ended, were mainly the work of foreign terrorists.

Those who were cheering were manifestly not foreigners, but ordinary Iraqi inhabitants of Fallujah.

The attacks moreover can only cast doubt on the claim of US generals in Iraq that this "mild uptick" in insurgent activity is having only a "negligible impact" on the reconstruction of the country.

Even beforehand, public doubts about the war were growing.

The proportion of Americans who believe it was right to attack Iraq has fallen to little more than 50 per cent, compared with 70 per cent or more during and immediately after the invasion.

But a CBS-New York Times poll last month found that by a 51-42 margin, the public here did not believe the war was worth the loss of American lives and the financial cost -- $160bn and counting.

Many experts argue that the public is more inured now to violence since the harsh awakening of Mogadishu in 1993.

But as the election campaign intensifies, the White House must anxiously be wondering how many more casualties public opinion will tolerate before the national mood changes.

- INDEPENDENT

Herald Feature: Iraq

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