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    A Times Editorial

    Finishing the job

    Gratifying military progress should not create any illusions about the long, difficult work that remains before the rebuilding of Iraq is complete.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003


    Only a few days ago, many observers were overly pessimistic about the course of the war in Iraq. U.S. and British troops had encountered heavier resistance than expected as they advanced through southern Iraq, and no one knew what to expect once the crucial battle of Baghdad began. After Wednesday's dramatic events, when the world saw jubilant residents rush into Baghdad streets to topple a prominent statue of Saddam Hussein, some of those same observers may have become overly confident about the remaining work that must be done before Iraq is truly free.

    At the same moment U.S. forces were being greeted as liberators in one section of Baghdad, hundreds of other U.S. troops were pinned down in a nearby neighborhood in one of the most brutal firefights of the war. The next day brought another suicide attack and deadly battles across Iraq.

    Although Hussein is either dead or decommissioned and his regime's central authority has collapsed, the war continues. As the Iraqi people emerge from Hussein's shadow, coalition forces are receiving friendlier greetings and more helpful information. But those Iraqis who were dependent on the regime -- Hussein's relatives and inner circle, Baath Party loyalists, Republican Guard and Fedayeen Saddam fighters -- will present a continuing danger even after a new order is established.

    In the meantime, establishing that new order will pose great challenges for U.S. and British forces. The immediate task is to rebuild civil authority in areas of Iraq that already have been liberated. In Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk and other vital cities, the jubilation over the collapse of Hussein's authority has degenerated into outbreaks of looting and mob rule. U.S. and British troops don't want to be bogged down in dangerous policing duties, and the Bush administration has resisted the idea of international peacekeeping.

    One way or the other, however, our occupying forces have an obligation to restore law and order and provide adequate humanitarian aid in major population centers. Otherwise, the political benefits of the Hussein regime's demise could be lost.

    The long-term business of nation-building presents even more complex problems. Hussein's dictatorship masked Iraq's natural divisions. The new Iraqi government must reflect the country's ethnic and religious diversity without allowing those differences to threaten the country's territorial integrity. That means assuring a level of Kurdish autonomy without destabilizing Iraq or Turkey. It means establishing equitable representation among Shiite and Sunni Muslims. It means identifying a new cadre of political leaders who broadly represent the aspirations of the Iraqi people, not those of Americans or other outside interests. The American people can be gratified that the world's greatest military is doing its work in Iraq as successfully as anyone could have reasonably expected. But not everyone's expectations are reasonable. Much difficult, perilous work remains to be done, politically as well as militarily.

    No one should underestimate the extent of rebuilding and reconciliation that must still take place if the highest objectives of our intervention in Iraq are to be met.

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