Through smoke, a sense of an ending

Although the war is not yet over, coalition forces are largely in control of Baghdad and resistance is minimal.

Among the more surreal images from the war in Iraq this week: US soldiers lounging in gold brocade chairs in one of Saddam Hussein's opulent palaces, using the marble sinks with gilded fixtures, liberating pillows and ashtrays as war booty.

Is it time to declare victory?

Militarily, it seems so. US aircraft now freely fly in and out of the newly dubbed "Baghdad International Airport." Slow-flying A-10 "Warthog" attack jets circle the city, looking for targets of opportunity. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers apparently have fled, leaving piles of uniforms and combat boots behind lest they be fired upon by roving armored patrols of US soldiers and marines.

Three battalions of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division are occupying - not just passing through - separate areas of Baghdad. One of Hussein's palaces has been turned into a POW collection point.

By nature, military officers with combat experience tend to be worrywarts.

"We're a long way from being able to celebrate victory," Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said at yesterday's Central Command briefing in Qatar. "There's still a great deal of hazard out there."

Such comments reflect the natural military disposition to be cautious in the face of continued fire. But as if to prove his point yesterday, an Iraqi missile blasted a mobile command post of the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, killing at least four people and injuring at least 15 others. (First reports were that two of the dead were journalists.)

Still, General Brooks said, the regime retains only "some capability" to fight - a more optimistic assessment than earlier talk about how the fight for Baghdad could be the most dangerous part of the war, fought by the most committed Iraqi fighters armed with chemical weapons. And outside of the capital, he added, "For the population, victory is already occurring in some areas."

'Victory' to be defined politically

Aside from the months (if not years) it will take to rebuild Iraq, declaring an end to the war in fact is a political decision. Or as White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the other day, "Victory is when the president announces it."

Some troops soon may be marching in victory parades back home, particularly those relieved by the 4th Infantry Division now forming up in Kuwait for their follow-on push to the north. But much remains to be done on the ground as the scene shifts from hard fighting to "mopping up" and then transitioning to the next phase - including a gradual takeover of a post-Hussein Iraq.

In one important sign that the White House is following the advice of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the US has flown the 500-man "1st Battalion Free Iraqi Forces" and Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi into the southern city of Nasiriyah.

This could be the first step in establishing an interim government in Iraq. How to proceed from that point, and how to involve the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations in humanitarian relief efforts (and beyond that, the longer-range goal of nation building), are among the topics being discussed by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at their summit in Northern Ireland this week.

The concern among some critics is that the US - buoyed by a military victory that mainly featured American troops - will heavily influence the interim administration of Iraq. US officials recognize this potential problem. "If we put our thumb on the scale, this will not be seen as a legitimate government by Iraqis," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told CNN yesterday.

With the Defense and State departments sparring over such questions, Mr. Armitage's warning may have been directed as much at the White House as anywhere else.

As if to assure his critics here and abroad that he is not some dark force behind a new American imperialism, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz blitzed the TV talk shows Sunday - talking up the United Nations, an organization some in the administration have termed "irrelevant." "The UN has an important role to play, particularly in the functional agencies that the UN has run so successfully," Mr. Wolfowitz said Sunday.

Beyond that is the long-term goal of war with Iraq: creating the atmosphere for peace and democracy around the Middle East. Mr. Bush has promised a "road map" for this effort, but his plan has yet to be seen.

Two unfulfilled objectives

As night fell on Baghdad Monday, key elements of any US victory had yet to be found: weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein himself.

There were reports that some 20 medium-range BM-21 missiles filled with sarin and mustard gas had been found. But that had not been confirmed by the Pentagon or by Central Command at press time.

There were also unconfirmed reports of sporadic clashes between armed people in Baghdad and elements of Baath army forces and the paramilitary fedayeen - the kind of uprising against the regime the US-led coalition has been hoping for.

No credible word has been heard from Hussein in recent days, and the regime's chief spokesman - Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf - seemed increasingly to be living in a fantasy world, declaring that US forces were not in Baghdad when in fact they were within rifle range of his outdoor press conference.

Whether or not chemical weapons or the elusive Mr. Hussein are found anytime soon, most Americans continue to support the war and its commander in chief.

According to new polls - Washington Post-ABC and Los Angeles Times - roughly 3 of 4 Americans support the war, including 70 percent of Democrats and two-thirds of those who describe themselves as liberal. And more than two-thirds say invading Iraq was the right thing to do even if chemical and biological weapons are never found.

For now, the fighting goes on. And although the immediate war's outcome is not in question, soldiers and marines on the ground know they are not in a position to declare victory. "Baghdad is under US control now, but the regime is still in the shadows," says Maj. Reg Neal, of the 3rd Infantry Division operations center. "You still have a very influential resistance."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report from outside Baghdad.

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