Picking up the pieces

February 27, 1991

In town yesterday for a speech to the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, Henry Kissinger captured the essence of Iraq's mercurial Saddam Hussein in one sentence: "He has an impeccable sense of timing -- he does everything three weeks too late."

As the Persian Gulf war draws to a merciful conclusion, it is no longer possible to discern whether there is any method in the madness of a man who, as Kissinger suggests, blew one chance after another to spare his country incalculable ruin at every point along the way in his ill-starred adventure. If there is any sense to be made of his final "strategy," it appears that he is following the whimsical advice of the late Sen. George Aiken when we were bogged down in a stalemated war in Vietnam 20 years ago: We should simply declare victory and bring the troops home.

That is precisely what Saddam has done. But even that curious strategy may be, as Kissinger suggests, three weeks too late. There is not only the question of whether his troops can get home, but whether they even want to come home to the now-ruined nation they left almost six months ago to seize Kuwait.

As a shaky peace comes over the war-torn region, one hardly knows where to begin to pick up the pieces. But not the least of the pieces may be an immense number of Iraqi prisoners of war -- conceivably, as many as 200,000 trapped in Kuwait alone.

Never mind the simple logistics of securing and feeding such a huge number of people -- feeding them, perhaps, food which could be going to the piteous refugees of the war. Suppose that they choose not to go back to Iraq. Can they be forced to do so? Especially if Saddam Hussein is still even technically in authority?

The prisoner issue is just one of the daunting tasks that lie ahead in the coming months and years. But compared to the ones to follow, it might even prove to be one of the simpler ones.

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