THE Gulf showdown is moving toward a post-battle phase, offering a rare chance to reshuffle Middle East politics. This final stage - which could see Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ousted from power - cannot be measured neatly in tanks destroyed or enemy captured. It involves the messier task of managing the transition to peace in a region torn by years of conflict.
Even after the liberation of Kuwait and the shattering of Iraq's vaunted military machine, the United States-led coalition faces major challenges.
Can or should billions of dollars in war reparations be extracted from Iraq? What should be done about Saddam? How should the coalition design the postwar political architecture of the area?
``Such a moment comes along about every 10 years,'' says Steven Spiegel, a Middle East expert at the University of California at Los Angeles - ``a moment when people are ready to see things differently.''
Analysts say Saddam's days in power are probably numbered. ``I think he is history,'' former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said in a Washington speech.
James Aiken, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says it is ``inevitable'' that Saddam will be forced out. ``The idea that he is going to be a real threat sometime in the future is an absurdity.''
Some experts are skeptical about collecting war damages from Iraq, either for Kuwait or other nations involved in the Gulf war.
``The plans for reparations made under heat of battle tend to fade,'' says former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.
Yet others note that with the world's second largest oil reserves Iraq has the ability to pay, even with its war-damaged economy.
As coaltion forces rounds up Iraqi prisoners, diplomats prepare to move back onto center stage in the Persian Gulf. One former US defense official calls the next step ``a very difficult negotiating stage.''
He explains: ``Even if we captured every Iraqi soldier, we will have to negotiate with something called the Iraqi government. If that's Saddam, he will make it a major song and dance. He's still got things we want.''
This includes the release of prisoners of war, recognition of Kuwait, and probably controls on the future development of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
So far, the coalition has been letting military might do much of the talking. By surrounding and isolating the last remnants of Saddam's military in and around Kuwait, the Bush administration and its partners were hoping to force Iraq to accept all the conditions of the United Nations resolutions and influence the Iraqi leader's standing after the war.
What's next for Saddam?
Capturing or taking out as much of Iraq's tanks and artillery as possible would hamstring Saddam's adventurism - and enhance his chances of being overthrown.
The White House is getting stronger about asserting what it wants for Saddam. ``Saddam and his military machine are simply incompatible with a lasting and just peace,'' Vice President Dan Quayle said Tuesday.
If military victory alone doesn't extract everything the coalition wants from Baghdad, the US-led forces hold other levers.
An immediate question is how the coalition uses thousands of troops who have swept across southern Iraq. House Armed Services Committee chairman Les Aspin has suggested holding territory in southern Iraq as leverage in the aftermath of the war.
But such an intrusive American presence risks a political backlash in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It also raises difficult practical problems in managing an occupation. ``I really think you don't want to get into the quagmire of occupying Iraq,'' says Al Bernstein, chairman of the strategy department at National Defense University.
A similar option is to seize some oil fields until reparations are paid or other demands met. ``That sort of discussion is being heard,'' says John Easton Jr., a senior official at the Department of Energy. ``Certain of my colleagues in other agencies of government are considering a whole range of options to try to assure that reparations are made to Kuwait.''
A simpler option is to continue the economic embargo. Iraq will desperately need to rebuild its economy and needs its oil revenues to do it. ``We hold all the cards there,'' Dr. Bernstein says.
Still, there is danger in cracking down too hard, especially if Saddam is no longer in power. Dr. Spiegel warns of the example of the defeated Germany after World War I, embittered by heavy reparations. ``What you have to prevent is the settling of scores.''
On the military front, some advocate taking a hard-line until Saddam capitulates.
Andrew Goldberg, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the coalition should ``humiliate'' the Iraqi Army so there is ``absolutely no question as to who won the war.''
US needs Arab support
The hard-line impulses of the White House have been reinforced by the views of Arabs in the coalition, one analyst, the former defense official, observes. Washington will need the benefit of the Arab mind-set to help negotiate the peace: ``We are not good rug merchants in this part of the world.''
The Soviets too will want in on the brokering. No stability in the region is likely to hold without their support. That's ``one reason you don't want to spit too hard in their face,'' says former Defense Secretary Harold Brown.