THE United States may be preparing to disengage from northern Iraq, but it can't disengage from the problems and responsibilities generated by the Gulf war. The operation in the north, creating safe zones so that Iraq's Kurds could return to their homes, has been a success. Hundreds of thousands have come down from perilous mountain encampments. Both the Kurds and their protectors, however, face deepening dilemmas as the foreign troops get ready to turn their jobs over to a sparse force of United Nations peacekeepers.
Kurdish leaders have discussed autonomy with Saddam Hussein, but, predictably, progress toward an agreement has been difficult. "International guarantees" are called for to ensure the Iraqis make good on any promises. But those guarantees are vague as yet. Will they include a commitment to intervene militarily again if Saddam cracks down? Will the UN presence deter Saddam?
The international economic embargo against Iraq, while loosened to allow the entry of food and medicine, remains the allies' strongest enforcement tool. Iraq's oil industry has to be repaired before it can climb out of the "pre-industrial" state left by coalition bombing. But the repairs can't start until at least a modest amount of oil income starts to flow. Iraq hasn't shipped any oil since the embargo began last August.
Meantime, the rigors faced by the average Iraqi are worsening. Bush administration officials reportedly estimate that 80 percent of Iraq's electrical power grid remains in tatters, and that the overall infrastructure repair bill could top $30 billion.
No electricity means extreme hardship in a country used to modern communications and conveniences. Health-related services, including water purification, are still largely knocked out. Essentials like infant formula are scarce.
The US and its allies should maintain some leverage over change within Iraq - both political and military. But they also have to honor their own humanitarian standards. The potential for increased suffering in Iraq demands, at the least, a further loosening of sanctions to permit the import of equipment necessary to restore electricity, transportation, and communication.
The continued use of sanctions should be geared to allowing the restoration of civilian services even as Saddam is forced to pay for his aggressions and relinquish his nuclear and chemical weapons capabilities.