War's Human Face

THE terrible scenes from Tel Aviv after a Scud missile hit, the spectacle of allied prisoners of war forced before cameras in Baghdad, refugees' accounts of suffering within Iraq - such images are quickly giving the war in the Gulf a human face it initially lacked. A ground assault to free Kuwait could bring the human tragedy of the war even more graphically to viewers and readers.

As the impact of the conflict on human lives is better understood, Americans who oppose military action will find their concerns confirmed. At the same time, Americans who support President Bush's decision to use force - and they're a strong majority - are likely to be even more convinced of the rightness of that course. Some will demand an instant end to the fighting even as others conclude it's time to batten down for a long but necessary struggle.

Can there be a end to this war short of the utter destruction of Iraq's ability to resist - along with much of that country's economic structure and thousands of lives?

The answer to that question - as to prewar questions of resolving the crisis - hinges on Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. Saddam Hussein may now feel, more than ever, that his status in the eyes of fellow Arabs depends on standing up to the allied bombardment. He may also still believe he can outlast his opponents.

Nothing being said by US officials supports that belief. The president says there can be no pause in the fighting now. Yet a natural pause could occur when massive allied air strikes have accomplished their mission and the the momentous decision of sending in the infantry is at hand.

At that juncture options could be reconsidered. Instead of launching a ground assault, the US could continue air action designed to prevent any resupply of Saddam's troops and thus starve them out - in effect, sanctions with a punch. Diplomatic channels could reopen.

Much depends on the scope of US goals in this conflict. Some in Washington are pressing for the removal of Iraq's present government. That clearly goes beyond the United Nations mandate. If Operation Desert Storm attempts to push beyond the liberation of Kuwait, the president will owe the country, and the world, a very clear rationale.

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