The unexpected

April 15, 2003

THE GOOD, THE BAD and the worrisome: In this war, it's hard to guess what will come next.

Who would have dared to predict that seven American soldiers - thoroughly lost in the tumult of war three weeks ago - would suddenly emerge from Iraqi captivity, relatively unharmed?

Who could have imagined that the collateral damage of this war would include a disastrous pillaging of the National Museum of Iraq, and the loss of tens of thousands of items from a collection that stretched back to the dawn of human civilization? To be followed yesterday by the torching of Baghdad's Islamic Library?

And who, in March, would have been so bold as to argue that by April the Bush administration would be energetically rattling its sabers at Syria?

Surprises pour in upon us - wonderful, ghastly, perplexing, heart-warming, horrifying and alarming as they may be. Storylines falter, because before we can get to the middle or end we're on to new beginnings. The head-shaking over the museum is pre-empted by the assault on Tikrit, but that results in Marines stumbling across the seven prisoners, and so the cable news stations go rocketing to capture the honest tears of joy of the families back home, except that now Colin L. Powell is talking about economic sanctions against Damascus - and whatever happened to Tikrit? (It fell.)

There's a danger in all this, because real stories do have middles, and sometimes ends. And they always have a context.

Think of the apprehension the families of those captured soldiers felt over the past three weeks, and the fears of the soldiers themselves. Think of that playing out over time, when few paid attention. We feel extraordinary cheer at the return of those who were lost. But we know there are other Americans still missing; there are Americans - more than 100 - who are dead and will never be returning to their families; there are Iraqis, too - more than 1,000 - killed, maimed and missing.

Similarly, the shock over the looting of the National Museum had worn down by yesterday, overtaken by new shocks. But the museum, a world treasure with artifacts from the dawn of civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is no less devastated.

Stolen and smashed, a priceless record of human history has vanished - and unlike those fortunate seven soldiers, it will stay lost forever.

But no time for that. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was calling Syria a rogue nation yesterday, and warning that it should "ponder the implications" of harboring Iraqi fugitives or possessing chemical weapons. Mr. Powell said the administration was examining "possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature" against Syria.

Those aren't one-day headlines. The administration may be trying to keep up the momentum, and figures that the regime in Damascus is more vulnerable than, for instance, the one in Tehran - but it wouldn't be out of line to consider some long-term consequences before going hell-bent across the border.

Iraq will be with us a long time. Now, out of the blue, comes Syria, as well. What further unexpected twists will that bring?

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