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Establishing order is item No. 1 for U.S. forces

WASHINGTON—The U.S. military campaign in Iraq has been stunningly successful, silencing both Iraqi guns and criticism that the Pentagon didn't commit enough ground troops, artillery or armor.

The combination of precision airstrikes, special forces operations, rapid maneuvers on the ground and, above all, flexibility, overwhelmed the Iraqis before they knew what hit them. The commanders of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division had the green light to push ahead and, if the Iraqis didn't fight back, keep pushing until they did.

The Iraqis never did fight, so in three weeks, more than 100,000 Americans troops drove more than 300 miles from Kuwait straight into downtown Baghdad with minimal casualties.

None of the nightmare scenarios—burning oil fields, chemical attacks, massive urban warfare, civilian slaughter blamed on the Americans and British—has materialized. Surveillance photos and videos taken Friday suggested that the Iraqis won't even make a last stand in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

But if U.S. forces don't move just as swiftly to impose order and restart some limited civil administration as they did to topple Saddam, a senior administration official warned, thievery and looting soon may be replaced by butchery. The great fear now, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, is that Iraqis will take revenge first on Saddam's Baath Party thugs and former secret police torturers, then move on to racial and religious and tribal score-settling.

It remains to be seen whether the United States, which has been able to take down governments in Afghanistan and Iraq in a matter of weeks, can make a successful transition from war fighting to peacekeeping.

The Afghan model isn't encouraging. One military analyst, who also asked not to be named, said: "We have been going backward in Afghanistan, where we overthrew the Taliban but have not replaced them with anything more than the same insecurity, chaos and warlord rule that originally brought the Taliban to power."

Coalition forces busy taking the cities—and still fighting for control of parts of Baghdad—couldn't also act as policemen. Now they're being ordered to stop the looting.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld was right that there were enough American and British troops to overrun Iraq's defenses, but it isn't clear that there are enough boots on the ground to secure law and order for 24 million Iraqis, locate Saddam and his minions, find hidden weapons of mass destruction and police Iraq's borders.

In late February, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz publicly rebuked the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, for suggesting to Congress that it might take "several hundred thousand" American soldiers to secure postwar Iraq.

Now the Pentagon is sending an additional 2,000 Marines to northern Iraq, the Army's 1st and 4th Infantry Divisions are en route, and Shinseki is looking smarter and smarter by the day.

Even with these reinforcements, however, U.S. forces are lacking two or three brigades of American military police who are trained and equipped to deal with civil unrest, said one Pentagon official. A brigade of MPs usually accompanies every division in an invasion to help secure rear areas and lines of support, and to deal with security in conquered territory, as the Geneva Conventions requires.

Those brigades were left behind, the official said, and they aren't being sent to Iraq even now.

Even the Pentagon civilian leadership's candidate to be Iraq's next leader, the controversial former exile Ahmed Chalabi, this week asked plaintively: Where are retired Gen. Jay Garner and his corps of civilian and military administrators, who are supposed to run postwar Iraq? Chalabi wanted to know why they weren't in Nasiriyah and Basra and Umm Qasr getting the electricity and water flowing.

A senior Bush administration official conceded Friday that the crime and chaos in Baghdad and elsewhere are complicating the search for American prisoners of war, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and efforts to track down surviving members of Saddam's regime.

The official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said U.S. soldiers and intelligence teams had counted on officials of the regime to lead them to POWs, chemical weapons and the places where important records were stored. The U.S. plan also had contemplated keeping some "less obnoxious" members of the government at their posts in nonmilitary agencies, especially economic ones.

Instead, many government and Baath Party officials have fled for their lives, and the unrestrained looting and burning threaten to destroy the records necessary not only to track down criminals but also to run the country.

"If we stand by and allow this to continue, it will hurt our efforts to have the war end on a good note," the official said. "But if we crack down hard, that'll put us in a bad light, especially if we can't start delivering food, water, medicine and the other things the Iraqis need."


So now Secretary of State Colin Powell is polling the nations who opposed the war, many of them in what Rumsfeld derisively called "old Europe," to see what they're willing to contribute to policing and rebuilding the country the United States and Britain took down.

The Bush administration's principal spokesmen and spinners say the anarchy and looting that have followed the liberation of Basra and Baghdad and Kirkuk and Mosul are just the understandable exuberance of a long downtrodden people.

Rumsfeld dismissed the problem, saying some amount of civil unrest and disorder is bound to occur in any society after the ouster of "a vicious dictator." He mocked suggestions that Iraqis were imperiled by instability: "Gee, maybe they were better off oppressed."

Some Iraqis may agree. Above the din of the riots and gunshots in Mosul's main square Friday, one man shouted: "The U.S. troops should have planned for this. If this is going to be our future, I'd rather have the regime back."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.