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NEWS ANALYSIS : U.S. Must Pull Its Punches to Score Political Victory : Diplomacy: After war, the coalition needs to avoid fueling anti-Americanism and radicalism in the Mideast.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the overwhelming initial success of the allied ground thrust against Iraq, Operation Desert Storm is moving close to what may be the most difficult phase of all--the complex and delicate end-game.

The challenge will be to convert a sweeping military victory into an enduring political success that does not fuel anti-Americanism and radicalism in the volatile Middle East. And some U.S. experts warn that the danger lies not in too little allied action but in too much action.

Although the triumph of its armed forces may give the U.S.-led coalition almost unlimited latitude in dictating the peace, these analysts say, restraint may serve long-term American interests--even on the emotion-charged issue of toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

After the war, said Augustus Richard Norton, a fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York, “the United States will be at the height of our influence. Never in Mideast history have we seen a moment like this. And with foresight and magnanimity, we can grab this extraordinarily opportune moment.”

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Yet, the mood in many coalition countries is hardening as the fighting continues. The Gulf War, like wars before it, is demonstrating that what might have been acceptable to all sides before, ceases to be acceptable once armed conflict has begun.

The attitude toward Hussein inside the U.S. government reflects this toughening stance.

“If he had fought over the past week against the ground campaign and we had defeated him, then he might not have been held to account,” one U.S. military official declared. “But now, with the strong information that he is trying to cover his tracks (in Kuwait) by executions at a high rate and destroying oil wells just out of spite, that is the kind of thing that many national leaders think is the last straw.

“There’s going to be more and more of a demand for his accountability. It could be more damaging (to him) than the invasion of Kuwait.”

Senior Bush Administration officials Sunday had reiterated their hope that Hussein will be forced from power.

Many U.S. experts believe Hussein’s military has been so battered already and his standing so diminished after only two days of the ground war that he will either be politically impotent or, in time, ousted by his own increasingly frustrated people.

For Washington to be perceived as directly bringing about his downfall could prove counterproductive, however, for the long-term good of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a whole.

“It may be that the last remaining hope for Saddam to be a winner will be his martyrdom,” said Norton. “And we must deny him that victory.”

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Indeed, some who warned just a week ago that Hussein’s survival could mean an Iraqi political victory now believe Hussein’s credibility as either a national or Arab leader has been sufficiently weakened that the allies can afford to allow his future to be decided in Baghdad.

“If there is a wholesale abandonment by the Iraqi army--through either surrender or being easily overwhelmed--the generals in Baghdad will feel they have to change the situation,” said Judith Kipper of the Brookings Institution.

U.S. involvement in determining whether he survives, politically or physically, “would go against everything we hope to build in the region afterwards,” added Riad Ajami, a political economist knowledgeable about Iraq. “Not to allow the Iraqis the right to determine their own leadership is neither desirable nor democratic.”

He equated any U.S. role in ousting Hussein with the 1953 CIA involvement in overthrowing an Iranian prime minister and putting the shah back on the throne--a scheme, ironically, in which a prominent part was played by the father of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of today’s U.S. forces in the Gulf.

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“It would be counterproductive to take him (Hussein) out with a bomb or a bullet,” Norton added. “Let the Iraqis take care of that. And even if he survives, under the current circumstances he’s utterly irrelevant.”

Similarly, analysts note, the 28-nation coalition will have to move deftly to avoid seeming to punish the Iraqi people for what Hussein and his military have done. And it must prevent Iraq from disintegrating into chaos and potential civil strife--becoming, in one nightmare scenario, a gigantic Lebanon.

“We don’t want to punish Iraqis for what Saddam has done to them. We don’t want to go deep, deep down into society and say anyone who said ‘Long live Saddam’ must be punished,” said William Quandt, a Mideast expert on the National Security Council staff in the Jimmy Carter Administration.

For similar reasons, U.S. analysts also suggest that the coalition may have to give up hopes of reparations, especially if Hussein is ousted. “We have to make a distinction about what we make Saddam responsible for and what will be required of the next regime,” Quandt said.

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“If by good luck we see a successor regime, one of the early things we must do is say we won’t hold you responsible. Otherwise, there is no way a successor regime could get its feet on the ground. The country is not only broke but $40 billion in debt.”

Ajami estimated that the cost of rebuilding Iraq will run as high as $150 billion, which could absorb every penny of its oil revenues for a decade or more.

“To saddle them with reparations would only create resentment that would best be avoided if we are looking for stability. It’s asking more than they’ll ever be able to afford, and vengeance should not be what we are spending our energies on now,” he said.

Indeed, instability in Iraq could also be destructive of any postwar Gulf security arrangement and of U.S. hopes of addressing other Middle East problems.

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“Will there be chaos in Iraq? That’s the real issue,” Kipper said. “That’s why American hands-on diplomacy should address socioeconomic and political questions as a priority after the war to signal that we are aware these issues are on the table. Otherwise, we’ll have an uncontrolled spiral of decline in the region.”


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