Permit the United Nations to make the peace in Iraq

Wednesday, April 16, 2003 at 1:00am

With the dramatic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of Baghdad, the war might as well be over. Was there ever any doubt who was going to win?

Now comes the next challenge: Who will win the peace? And winning the peace in Iraq will be far more difficult than winning the war.

As any student of history knows, Iraq isn't a real country. It was invented after World War I as part of the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire. Decision-makers in Versailles drew new lines on a map, called it Iraq, and tossed in three often warring populations: the Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims. Each of them would still prefer their own country.

Eventually, Iraq should be governed by Iraqis, elected by their own people. But it will be some time before free elections are possible. After World War II, it took five years before Japan was ready for self-governance. In Iraq, it may take two years. Who governs Iraq in the interim?

The easiest path would be for the U.S. military to run the country. And we deserve it. We beat them fair and square. We sacrificed U.S. lives to liberate the country. Now it's our right and duty to make sure it's put back together. As the Romans used to say, to the victor belong the spoils.

Big mistake. The Roman Empire is just what we don't want to look like. We had a hard enough time convincing the Arab world to accept the U.S. military as an army of liberation. We will never convince them to accept us an army of occupation. It won't take long before cheers for the arrival of U.S. troops in Baghdad turn into jeers for their continued presence.

The next easiest path would be for the United States to put someone in charge of the country. Unfortunately, it looks like that's what we're about to do. While troops were still fighting their way to Baghdad, the U.S. military escorted Ahmed Chalabi, controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress, back into Iraq

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