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Fight ahead is for a stable Iraq

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

Despite the joyous scenes in Baghdad on Wednesday, American and British forces face a dangerous, critical period.

In coming days, troops already stretched thin must restore law and order or risk that anarchy will sweep the country, spawning revenge killings and massive property damage.

They must continue the hunt for biological and chemical weapons, both to validate a major reason for going to war and to prevent them from falling into hostile hands. And they must convince the Iraqi people that they have come as friends, not as occupiers.

"I think the Americans' problems really begin right now," said Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq at Britain's Warwick University. "You have a population that is celebrating the demise of a regime, not celebrating the arrival of Americans."

After 24 years of murder, torture and repression under Saddam Hussein, Iraqis tore down statues of the dictator and ransacked Baath Party offices and public buildings. But what some observers call "good-natured looting" could turn into widespread rampages unless the allies quickly increase the number of soldiers in the city.

"I think it could get worse before it gets better," said Sir Tim Garden, a former British general and now a professor at King's College in London.

"You get to the stage where you've got to do something about (the looting) or the whole country is trashed. If you leave it too long, you have to use quite strong methods to bring back order, which characterizes you as the invasion forces doing nasty things to the people."

As some of Baghdad's 5-million residents celebrated Wednesday, others engaged in firefights that proved the situation remained far from stable. It was hard to tell if the resistance came from remnants of Hussein's Republican Guard, paramilitaries or hooligans out for themselves. But it took British troops two weeks to subdue the southern city of Basra, with 1.3-million people, and it likely will take at least that long to bring order to Baghdad, one expert says.

"I do not believe that an American soldier could take off his flak vest and helmet and walk without a weapon down the street of his choosing for probably a couple or three weeks," said Peter Zimmerman, a Washington defense analyst. "And even then it's going to be very much like Beirut in its worst days."

In addition to public security, allies will have to address basic humanitarian issues. Water and power remain out in many areas. Hospitals are full of injured patients but are desperately short of supplies. At least 60 percent of Iraqis get their basic foods from a U.N. program that was suspended at the war's start and provisionally reinstated March 28.

"Iraqis who have been living with tremendous uncertainty throughout this crisis ... hope that their personal needs can now be taken care of," says Tamara Wittes, Mideast specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank.

Iraqis are also concerned about how their country will be run until a permanent, democratic government can take over. In an experiment that will be closely watched elsewhere, British forces in Basra have tapped a respected sheik to lead the city with the help of police and other civil servants left over from Hussein's regime.

The challenge will be getting the local populace to accept them. Shiite Muslims in Basra rebelled after the 1991 Gulf War, but Hussein's forces -- mostly Sunni Muslims -- quashed the uprising and murdered thousands.

Basra's new government "will have to use old, not-too-nasty faces from the regime," says Garden, the former general. "It will be quite a trick to turn."

As order is restored, another priority for the allies will be trying to locate chemical and biological weapons.

"If we do not find genuine, usable weapons of mass destruction, then the underlying reason given to the United Nations for this war will be shown false," Zimmerman said. "A rather large chunk of our legitimacy for going in will be shown to be illegitimate and that would be a terrible loss for the United States."

Garden said he wouldn't be surprised if nothing is found: "We're still hunting around in Ireland for weapons caches that the Irish Republican Army buried away years ago."

Based on the few rusty drums of unidentified chemicals that have turned up so far, Garden surmises that any biological and chemical agents in Iraq are old, decaying and probably buried. Otherwise, U.N. weapons inspectors likely would have found them before they withdrew several weeks ago.

"If they're buried away," Garden said, "they won't be immediately available and that's a worry. That means there are some people in the country who know where they are and they may see the best future as selling them off to the highest bidder."

The biggest mystery, though, is Hussein's own fate. Although the Bush administration insists his regime is finished and he is no longer a factor, most Iraqis would find it easier to move forward knowing he is definitely gone.

"There is no doubt that having Saddam dead or captured is the preferable way of showing that the whole country has changed," Garden said. "However, we'll be quite lucky if that happens -- I think we will have another bin Laden-type figure that we don't know where he is."

As vestiges of Hussein's regime continue to fall, the fast-moving events in Baghdad this week recall images of jubilant East Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall in 1989. But most experts think the situation in Iraq will more closely parallel Bosnia or Northern Ireland, where strife continues long after hostilities officially ended.

"I think it will be a long time before semiorganized resistance is finished," Zimmerman said. "And there have been reports that terrorist fighters from other Arab countries have infiltrated Iraq and will try to continue the kind of battle they wage in Gaza and (the West Bank).

"I don't think we're going to see a completely pacified country for a long time."

-- Susan Taylor Martin Can be contacted at .

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