WASHINGTON — The war seems won, but how does the United States secure the peace? While it might be an exaggeration to say the hardest part lies ahead, President Bush must move deftly to ensure that today's scenes of jubilation in Baghdad do not turn into scenes of chaos and anti-American resentment tomorrow, according to current and former U.S. officials.
In short order, the United States must ensure that Iraqis have basics such as food, water and electricity. It also must erect an interim Iraqi government backed by American military power and then fashion a smooth transition that gets American troops out of the country.to current and former U.S. officials.
Amid the scenes of celebrating Baghdadis, U.S. Marines worried that the images will turn dark unless American forces can guarantee deliveries of humanitarian assistance. "Enthusiasm will quickly wear off on an empty stomach," said Lt. Col. Dave Pere at the Marines' forward headquarters south of the Iraqi capital.
Beyond Iraq, Bush faces a fundamental choice in the Middle East, hotly debated by his advisers. Will he focus American energies on a revived Israeli- Palestinian peace process or carry the war to other sources of terrorism in the region, such as Syria?
Wednesday was "an absolutely stunning day," former senior Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross said. "We want to be sure that winning the war is not followed by losing the peace."
Ross, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke as the institute issued a bipartisan blueprint for post-war U.S. policy. Endorsed by a diverse group including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Clinton defense secretary William Perry, it calls on U.S. forces to stabilize Iraq and then rapidly give way to a multinational peacekeeping force.
That is but one of the numerous scenarios being suggested. The role of the United Nations, NATO and Iraqis is still being debated.
Bush has pledged that Iraqis, not the United States, will choose Iraq's new leaders.
Vice President Cheney announced Wednesday that a U.S. reconstruction team will meet with a broad group of Iraqis on Saturday at an airbase near the southern city of Nasiriyah. It would be the first such meeting on territory formerly controlled by Saddam Hussein since the war began.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said later that the meeting to discuss a temporary Iraqi government will include Iraqis from areas liberated by coalition troops and Iraqi exiles.
The choice of the airbase was notable because it is the temporary home of exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who was flown there Sunday by U.S. planes and is strongly backed by the Pentagon and Cheney's office for a future leadership role.
Boucher, however, said the meeting "is not a coronation. It's not a choice of some kind of government." Differing with Cheney, he said the meeting's date and locale have not been finalized.
And in a potential sign of future power struggles within Iraq, a previously unknown group calling itself the Iraqi Republican Group issued a communique in Baghdad, saying it had existed secretly for eight years and had played a key role in Saddam's overthrow.
The group, saying it represented all of Iraq's religions and ethnic groups, urged that the Nasiriyah meeting be postponed and moved to Baghdad.
"The Iraqi people, who have suffered so long under Saddam's tyranny, should at last decide their own destiny," the communique said. "These fateful decisions should not be imposed by foreigners and should not be made by those who are unfamiliar with the realities of Iraq."
The communique was a reminder that Iraqis might not welcome foreign troops for long now that Saddam's regime appears headed for history's trash heap.
European leaders, including close Bush ally Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, have urged the president to give the United Nations a leading role in creating the new Iraq to give it legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and the world.
Bush and Blair agreed Tuesday that the United Nations will have a "vital role." But the president defined that role largely as delivering humanitarian supplies.
For now, the reconstruction effort is being dominated by the Pentagon. Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner has been tapped to run a temporary civilian administration that will oversee Iraqi ministries and gradually hand power back to Iraqis.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz estimated Sunday that that process could take more than six months.
Critics contend that not internationalizing the effort is a major error, and could eventually negate successes on the battlefield.
"We have created opportunities, which are real, which have to be exploited," said Brookings Institution scholar Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council staff member in the Clinton administration. "These guys are about to make a grave, grave, grave mistake by Americanizing the post-war effort, to the exclusion of all else."
The Washington Institute report recommends that the security situation and the civil administration be turned over to the United Nations or another international authority once Iraq is stabilized.
While a military-led administration is necessary at first, "the shorter the period of time, the better for us," Ross said.
Beyond Iraq, Bush is certain to be pressed by European and Arab leaders, as well as Secretary of State Colin Powell, to make a major effort to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Such an effort could help assuage anger in the Arab world against the United States.
But the report recommends that Bush move cautiously and insists that the Palestinians and Arab leaders first show they are serious about ending the use of violence against Israel.
Aligning itself with administration hawks, the report suggests that Bush use the victory in Iraq to persuade other regimes, such as Syria and Iran, to give up terrorism and the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.
The leaders of Syria and Iran "should not miss the message that countries that pursue Saddam's reckless, irresponsible and defiant behavior could end up sharing his fate," the report says.
Juan O. Tamayo of The Miami Herald contributed to this report from Baghdad.