At home, fall of Baghdad elicits relief and wariness

Sense of victory is accompanied by awareness of nation-building road ahead.

Like many Americans, Patrick Dahl woke up Wednesday morning to the image of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled in the heart of Baghdad. But as he watched the footage of cheering Iraqis and the endless replays of that pivotal moment throughout the day, the Chicago film student's main reaction leaned more toward uncertainty than jubilation. "I think we're entering a new phase," he ventures cautiously. "But I don't know if there will be an end" to the conflict anytime soon.

From his computer at work, Boston businessman Keith Fournier found it "heartening" to watch the reaction of the Iraqi people. But he, too, feels the war is far from over. He worries Mr. Hussein's forces might still be planning a surprise attack. And he doesn't see a quick end to US involvement in the region once the fighting ends: "Realistically," he surmises, "we'll have a presence there for at least five years."

There's no doubt people across the US have been moved by the triumphant scenes in Baghdad. But for many, the feeling of relief at the coalition troops' quick and easy progress has been overshadowed by nagging doubts. Some worry the fighting has been too easy - and that Iraqi troops might still unleash a chemical or biological attack. Others wonder if the Iraqis cheering in Baghdad are really representative of the population at large.

Challenges ahead

Above all, many Americans are now looking ahead to the postwar phase, worrying about damaged relations with allies and the looming task of rebuilding Iraq - which, to many, may pose greater challenges than the war itself.

According to a new Washington Post survey, a slim majority - 52 percent - believes the war will leave America in a stronger global position. But that's far fewer than the 84 percent who felt that way after the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Likewise, the poll also found that 62 percent of Americans are concerned the US will get bogged down in a long and costly peacekeeping effort. But those worries come with a sense of obligation: A recent Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll found 61 percent believe the US should devote itself to creating a stable democracy in Iraq even if it means maintaining a significant presence there for several years.

In some ways, Americans' trepidation may be linked to feelings of responsibility and concerns about the burden the US has undertaken.

"The US will now be responsible for what happens in Iraq in a remarkably clear-cut and visible way," says Benjamin Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University. "Everybody around the world and in the US will be scrutinizing very carefully to see how this goes. And if things start going badly with the occupation, I would expect a fairly rapid erosion of public support."

Certainly, Americans are feeling more upbeat than before about the progress of the war: According to a recent Gallup poll, 95 percent think the war is going "very" or "moderately" well.

But while about three-quarters of the public say the scenes in Baghdad made them feel "proud" and "relieved," 85 percent of Americans think the war is not over yet, and more than a third expect major battles ahead.

A key concern for many is the status of Saddam Hussein. Eric Stevens, a disc jockey from Hollywood, Fla., who served in the US Army, sees the recent events in Baghdad as a definite "turning point," but adds: "In order to claim true victory, we need to see clear proof that Saddam is dead."

Others say any victory in Iraq will hinge on discovering and destroying weapons of mass destruction. "That was our legal precedent for being there," says James Gottschaok, a college student from Miami.

These issues, along with other factors - such as the damage to Iraqi civilians and infrastructure, and the long-term economic cost to the US - will go a long way toward determining whether Americans ultimately judge the war to be a success, says Professor Page.

Still, the events of the past few days have clearly generated a sense of optimism and hope among Americans, whether or not it proves lasting. According to a Gallup poll, three-quarters of the public now see the situation in Iraq as "worth going to war over." And nearly half say the events in Baghdad are as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Many Americans say they had an instinctively emotional reaction to seeing the statue of Hussein fall. "I felt it was a pivotal point. Seeing the statue torn down [offers] a little bit of hope," says Brenna, a Boston mutual fund employee, who says people at her office flocked to watch the scene in the cafeteria.

Possible 'icon of the war'

Likewise, Rachel Woodhouse, a design student from Boston, admits the footage made her feel "happy," despite her antiwar stance. "It's good to see the [Iraqi] people happy," she says.

The image of the statue falling may well become "an icon of the war," says Robert Entman, a communications professor at North Carolina State University. Like the image of the airplanes hitting the Twin Towers, or Germans breaking off chunks of the Berlin Wall, the scene may become fixed in Americans' minds, he says, and "symbolize a kind of vindication of Bush and his policy." Still, he cautions, "there's a lot of other competing images" that may emerge in the future. "All kinds of things could still go wrong."

Jennifer LeClaire, Anne Stein, and staff writer Amanda Paulson contributed to this report.

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