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Hard work lies ahead for Bush, coalition forces in Iraq

WASHINGTON—The capture of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein achieves one of President Bush's major goals in Iraq and removes one lingering source of instability that has dogged the U.S.-led reconstruction effort.

But Bush has much, much more to do—and little time to do it—before he can claim victory and bring the bulk of American troops home, according to Middle East experts inside and outside government.

The president sent U.S. troops and airmen into Iraq nearly nine months ago, on March 19, promising to smash Saddam's regime, rid the country of weapons of mass destruction and establish a new Iraq that was, in his words, "united, stable and free."

He also hoped to spark a democratic transformation in the Middle East, with Iraq at its centerpiece, that would make the region safer for the United States and its allies.

The regime is long gone and most of its former leaders, now including Saddam, are either in custody or dead.

But no caches of chemical, biological or nuclear arms have been found.

And a stable democracy remains a distant dream. While rebuilding is under way, Iraq remains torn by a violent insurgency, sectarian political gridlock and economic underperformance, including unemployment estimated at 50 percent.

Bush, in a news conference Monday, acknowledged that there will be no quick exit from Iraq, even with Saddam gone.

"The temptation is to try to get the president or somebody to put a timetable on the definition of getting the job done. We're just going to stay the course," he said.

Amatzia Baram, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of several books on Saddam, said, "It's very clear—a lot was accomplished. But there is much more to accomplish."

In many ways, Saddam's capture was more about Iraq's past, burying at last the Baath Party regime that ruled by terror for more than a generation.

It remains to be seen how his capture will affect Iraq's future. It may or may not deflate an insurgency led by members of the country's Sunni Muslim minority, who prospered under Saddam, and prod Sunni holdouts to join efforts to form a new government.

The hope is that the Sunnis will now "buy into the system," Baram said. "That's a very effective anti-insurgency policy."

A State Department official agreed, saying Saddam's capture might remove the lingering hope among some Sunnis that former regime members could outlast the United States and eventually return to power.

"It has the potential to change the dynamic," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The question, he said, is, "Are people inside of Iraq capable of moving on?"

But the U.S.-led effort, along with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, to fashion an interim government is badly gridlocked, with former Iraqi exiles favored by the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney contributing to the mess, according to some administration officials.

With U.S. backing, the Iraqi council has proposed a series of nationwide caucuses to choose members of a new transitional national assembly, which will in turn choose an interim government. It is to present its plans to the U.N. Security Council this week.

But powerful Shiite clerics led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al Sistani have insisted on nationwide elections, rather than caucuses, to choose assembly members, putting Bush's promises of Iraqi democracy to the test. Shiites are about 60 percent of Iraq's population, but they were brutally repressed by Saddam's largely Sunni Baath Party.

L. Paul Bremer, Bush's envoy in Iraq, is willing to compromise, allowing elections in some parts of Baghdad where there is a large enough U.S. military presence to prevent fraud or violence, the State Department official said.

But some former Iraqi exiles who have had powerful patrons in Washington, including Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, are opposing such a compromise, the official said.

Fearing that they would be defeated in elections, the exiles have proposed that the governing council, which was appointed under U.S. guidance, be transformed into the upper house of a bicameral legislature, the official said.

"You've got people with different motivations and different objectives coming together to force the United States to modify its concepts," he said.

As a June 30 deadline approaches for dissolving the U.S. occupation authority and returning sovereignty to Iraqis, the Bush administration will be forced into further concessions, the official predicted.

Iraq's economic revival, meanwhile, has been hampered by continued violence and international disagreements.

How Saddam's capture will affect the international arena also remains unclear.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III on Tuesday begins a mission to negotiate a reduction in Iraq's massive foreign debt with meetings in Paris.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin announced Monday that France, which has been at odds with Bush over the war, is willing to strike a deal on the debt.

But there is as no sign yet that France and other countries will move to help the United States rebuild Iraq, or that the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will end his refusal to send a full U.N. mission to the unstable country.


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