Open Baghdad

April 10, 2003

THE RESISTANCE and sullenness that greeted American troops in southern Iraq led many - in uniform and out - to suspect that Baghdad was going to be a hard nut to crack. But events are proving otherwise.

Fighting continues even as looters celebrate the evaporation of Saddam Hussein's regime, but despite the gunfire U.S. forces are gaining almost complete freedom of movement around the city. The Army has borrowed a page from that famous baseball team in New York: Once their opponents offer them an opening, the Yanks just pour it on. In Baghdad, this has led to a swift and unexpected transformation.

The opportunistic American tactics seem to be costing more civilian lives than the more cautious approach the British have been pursuing in Basra, but if Baghdad falls swiftly and the city is made secure, it may be worth it. The capital is teetering on the brink of violent anarchy, but dealing with anarchy is a lot better than dealing with grinding, street-by-street warfare in a metropolitan area of more than 5 million people.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld cautions that the war is not won yet, and of course he's right. But the glee that was evident in certain parts of Baghdad yesterday was an important signal that a positive end to the war may be in sight.

What accounts for this change of mood, and will it last? Will the sense of liberation spread outward from Baghdad? Will America be embraced by the Iraqi people?

U.S. military commanders say they don't intend to become policemen, but events seem likely to force their hand. Looting has a way of becoming rioting, and unless something is done to restore order, the mood could change quickly again.

At the moment, there aren't the forces on the ground to fight a war and police a big city at the same time. The 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division have done a brilliant job so far; more troops are needed, fast, to secure their gains.

Twenty-four years under Saddam Hussein has not prepared Iraqis for life in a civil society. When the lid is taken off a repressive regime, there's always the threat of an explosion, as the former Soviet republics too often demonstrated. The law is what the state says it is, and with the state gone there's no law or sense of law left behind. What's left is a mob, willing to ransack a police station or hospital or anything it can get its hands on.

And there's another lesson to be learned from the Soviet experience: In a country like Iraq, the agents of the regime - and their collaborators and their stool pigeons - are legion. Every family is compromised one way or another. Those who depended on the hand of the despot are ubiquitous. And all of those people don't just disappear overnight. They are Iraq. In the long run, they're not going to make the American-led reconstruction any easier.

But that was good news that filled the world's television screens yesterday. The avoidance of a pitched battle for Baghdad means fewer casualties among both Americans and Iraqis, and much better prospects for the future. It is now up to U.S. authorities to capitalize on their success, to cement the good feeling, and to make good their promise to ordinary Iraqis when the war began - the promise of a better, freer life.

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