TENS OF thousands of looters roaming Baghdad. Thieves trying to steal a hospital generator, and getting into a firefight with guards. No water in Basra. Two Islamic clerics hacked to death by a crowd in Najaf - after one of them pulled out a Kalashnikov and started firing. A suicide bomber blowing himself up at a U.S. Marine checkpoint in the capital. Storekeepers shooting into crowds. Hundreds of wounded civilians filling up hospitals, only to find few doctors and fewer supplies.
Surely this spasm can't last long. But the people of southern Iraq desperately need food and water, right now, and the people of Baghdad are equally in need of law and order. A medical crisis is on the verge of engulfing the whole country - and all the while American and British forces are still fighting a doomed but tenacious foe.
President Bush told the Iraqi people in a televised address yesterday, one that few could watch because of the widespread electrical failures, "The future of your country will soon belong to you."
That's good news for a much put-upon people, but right now the future of Iraq actually belongs to the United States and the United Kingdom and their armed forces.
Many Iraqis clearly are thrilled to be rid of the despotic Saddam Hussein, and some believe that their lives will be better following an American victory over him and his regime. But Washington kicked off this war and now Washington must take responsibility for the care and protection of the Iraqi people.
Not after the war is over - and it's not over, yet - but now, American officials have to start bringing relief to this sundered land. That doesn't mean that the 3rd Infantry Division or the 1st Marine Division should stop fighting, but it does mean that every resource should be brought to bear behind them for the good of civilians.
The alternative is mob rule and an ever-increasing number of sick, wounded and dying people.
Eventually, the international community must be prepared to step in, and the Bush administration must be prepared to allow it to step in. But that's eventually, and this is now.
For the past two days or so, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his supporters have been castigating the armchair generals who wanted more troops on the ground in Iraq. Lightning advances, special forces and high-tech weaponry carried the day, in their view, and the second-guessers are history.
The point, though, is that winning the battle is only the first step toward remaking Iraq, and right now they've got a mess on their hands. As Maj. Gen. Gene Renuart Jr., at Central Command, pointed out yesterday, "Baghdad's still an ugly place."
It's going to require more foot soldiers and relief workers and plenty of supplies to change things for the better. Right now very little is being done to get help into Iraq, although American civil administrators and international humanitarian organizations are waiting just across the border to get started. If they don't get going soon it won't be forgotten. This may be America's only chance to win the respect and even gratitude of ordinary Iraqis; it would be not just criminal but self-defeating to let them down.