Cheering crowds in the streets of Baghdad suggest that American forces may be moving from the first stage of their engagement in Iraq to the second - from war and combat to peace and reconstruction.
Combat is certainly the more dangerous and dramatic, but not necessarily the more complex or expensive phase of this operation, and it will certainly not be the most time-consuming.
Once having toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, the initial task facing American and British forces will be to re-establish security throughout Iraq. In recent weeks, the principal threat to American forces has been Iraqis trying to kill them. In the next stage of engagement, the principal threat will be Iraqis trying to kill each other.
Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence will stem from three sources:
First, we will see - and are beginning to see - an upsurge of looting, rioting and criminality, which accompanies any break down of order. American and British forces will have to reimpose that order.
Second, we are beginning to see retributive violence rising from among the millions of Hussein's victims looking to get even. One may not lose sleep over the fate of Hussein's closest henchmen. But there are many thousands, prehaps even millions, of innocent people who are associated with the regime by reason of family, ethnic, regional or religious ties.
The United States as the immediate successor to the Hussein regime will be responsible for their safety. Let us recall that in Kosovo, American troops originally went in to protect Kosovar Albanians from Serbs and then spent the next three years protecting Serbs from Albanians. We could well find ourselves in a similar position in Iraq.
And, finally, American forces will need to hold the country together against the efforts of those who may seek to carve it up. Here the threats come as much from our longstanding friends, the Kurds and the Turks, as they do from longstanding adversaries such as Iran.
Another immediate task facing American forces will be looking to the immediate human needs of the Iraqi population for food, water, shelter and medical attention. Humanitarian supplies are stockpiled in the region, and humanitarian agencies are poised to move in to assist. But they cannot do so effectively until some modicum of security has been established.
The goal would be to keep the Iraqi administration in place, though there will have to be purges, most deeply in the police, intelligence and military services.
It will also fall to the United States and Britain to restore basic public services and reinforce a civil administrative structure to run the country. The Bush administration will have to decide how deeply to purge existing Iraqi institutions of Baathist influence and how extensively to rely on Hussein's machinery of government to carry out our American policies.
The next priority will be to promote, indeed to enforce, a democratic transformation. Here U.S. authorities will face a dilemma. The quicker we turn power back over to Iraqis the sooner we can begin to scale back our own costs and commitments. But the sooner the United States turns power over to unelected Iraqis the less likely will become thoroughgoing democratic reforms. The process of associating Iraqis with the American-led administration will need to be both careful and gradual.
And the final American priority will be to launch reconstruction proper. In the long term, Iraq's oil wealth, if properly administered, can pay for much of Iraq's economic development. For the next several years, however, oil revenues will not cover Iraq's immediate humanitarian needs, service its international debts and pay for needed repairs to the oil fields themselves.
Thus, in addition to deciding how quickly to turn power back over to Iraqis, the Bush administration will need to decide how much and how quickly to share responsibility with other nations and international institutions whose money, expertise and military manpower we will need to execute the above tasks well. From the day President George W. Bush determined to topple Saddam Hussein there has never been any doubt that the American military would be able to do so rapidly and, if necessary, alone.
Winning the war was certain, winning the peace is not. Winning the peace without the active participation of others with the capacity to contribute, including those states who opposed the war, is an even less safe bet.
James Dobbins was the Clinton administration's special envoy for Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and the Bush administration's first envoy for Afghanistan. He is now director of RAND's Center for International Security and Defense Policy.
This commentary originally appeared in New York Newsday on April 11, 2003.