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After Winning War, Bush Faces Perils In Post-Hussein Iraq

Despite unexpected combat difficulties, the outcome of the war in Iraq is not in doubt. The outcome of the post-war Iraqi aftermath is in doubt, however — entailing political perils for President Bush. [IMGCAP(1)]

Much as some administration officials raised expectations for a quick victory greeted by cheering Iraqis, Bush has raised expectations about the aftermath, promising to point Iraq — indeed, the whole Middle East — toward democracy.

Bush and his ally, British Prime Minster Tony Blair, strove last week to readjust expectations about the war, saying that timing was not as important as results.

Bush said that “however long it takes to achieve our objective, the Iraqi people have got to know that … they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed no matter how long it takes.”

The military plan seems to be to begin systematically destroying the three Iraqi Republican Guard divisions guarding Baghdad from the air, one tank at a time, before a final push into the capital.

Iraq’s defense minister said his forces would fight house-to-house in the city, but U.S. military experts say Baghdad, spread out and more like Los Angeles than Manhattan, can be conquered in chunks, if necessary.

Once the war ends, however, new problems begin. Large portions of the population — especially Northern Kurds and Southern Shiites — undoubtedly will cheer in the streets when they are freed from Saddam Hussein’s oppression.

But there is reason to fear that Iraq could resemble Yugoslavia, which flew apart in bloody ethnic conflict once its longtime dictator, Marshal Tito, passed from the scene.

American and British troops — possibly assisted by other nations — will have to hold the country together and keep disparate groups from taking out reprisals on those who’ve oppressed them. [IMGCAP(2)]

Former Democratic Senate aide and diplomat Peter Galbraith, an expert on Kurdish affairs, told me that he asked the U.S. official in charge of aiding the northern city of Kirkuk about who would provide security there.

“‘We’re going to use the local police force,’” Galbraith said the official responded. “‘Do you know who the police are?’ I asked. He said they were Kurds. I said, ‘No, they’re Arabs, the people who kicked 250,000 Kurds out of the city in a program of ethnic cleansing.’”

Galbraith said the Kurds undoubtedly will want to return to Kirkuk — and they may want to oust the 250,000 Arab settlers that Hussein sent in to replace them.

“It bothers me that the people we’re going to put in charge don’t know who the police are,” he said. He added that, on the eve of the war, officials in charge of administering Iraq afterward were still making calls to recruit people to run key Iraqi ministries when the war is over.

It was only on Jan. 20 — after weeks of urging from Members of Congress — that Bush set up the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance at the Pentagon under retired Gen. Jay Garner.

According to a senior defense official who briefed reporters March 11, Garner has assembled an interagency staff of more than 200 people and assigned them to relief, reconstruction and civil management jobs — but he still has not decided what to do with members of the Iraqi National Congress, the leading exile dissident group.

Pentagon officials are said to favor using the INC as the basis of a new Iraqi Interim Authority after the war — the INC wants to be recognized as a government-in-exile right now — but the State Department and CIA reportedly want to depend on people already living in Iraq.

It’s not at all clear how many U.S. troops will stay in Iraq and for how long — and what the timetable is for the transition from Garner’s viceroyship to Iraqi rule.

Iraq expert Phoebe Marr told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also on March 11, that U.S. liberators might enjoy a “honeymoon” period “if we move smartly to restore services, provide jobs and get the economy moving.”

But she said Iraqis — even those not loyal to Hussein — “will be intensely nationalistic. … It will not take long — six months, a year — for opposition to surface. This presents us with a dilemma and we will have to make tradeoffs.”

“To get real political and social change — a constitutional regime, for example — will take time. But the longer we stay, the more we risk generating national resentment and opposition,” Marr said.

Conceivably, pro-Hussein remnants — Baath party militants and the “fedayeen” thugs currently harassing U.S. supply lines — could stage guerrilla attacks on U.S. peace-keepers, causing political problems for the Bush administration at home.

Bush and Blair said they wanted the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution establishing a post-Hussein reconstruction system, but France and Russia are balking at allowing the United States and Britain a leading role.

Evidently, the two nations that tried to block the war are now hoping to use the United Nations to reinsert themselves into a major position in the aftermath — something Bush presumably will not welcome.

Foreigners who opposed the war — and much of the Arab world — likely will accuse the United States of “occupying” Iraq and of practicing “imperialism.”

Bush has made it clear that “the United States has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq’s new government” and that “that choice belongs to the Iraqi people. … We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more.”

He said “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example for other nations in the region” — not that the United States was going to impose democracy on Arab nations.

Bush is an idealist, not an imperialist, but he’s raised expectations for a smooth transition in post-war Iraq. He’ll be judged accordingly — among others, by Democrats and by voters in the 2004 elections.

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