THE release of 10 coalition prisoners of war in Baghdad is a first concrete step away from hostilities in the Gulf. It lends credence to the ``positive attitude'' US Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf noted in his Iraqi counterparts when they met Sunday for truce negotiations. Other steps toward final settlement of the Gulf conflict have been taken at the United Nations, where Security Council members approved a set of tough conditions for Iraq in advance of a permanent cease-fire.
The Iraqi representatives at the UN and in the desert have shown no reluctance to meet the demands made of them. They have no choice. Iraq's defeat was total, and in its aftermath political storms are brewing. Shiite Muslim resistance groups are apparently challenging Baghdad's authority in Basra and other southern Iraqi cities. On Iraqi television, just revived after being knocked out during the war, Saddam Hussein is putting up a business-as-normal facade, but there's little doubt his regime is being shaken to its foundations.
Iraqis have every right to resent a decade spent pouring their country's wealth into weaponry that now lies smouldering on the sands of Kuwait.
Only a handful of coalition soldiers, including nine Americans, are known to be in Iraqi hands, but their release has symbolic importance beyond their numbers after their earlier exploitation by Baghdad for propaganda purposes. Iraqis held by the coalition number at least 80,000, and their repatriation will be a major logistical challenge - complicated by the likelihood that many may not want to return to an Iraq still under Saddam Hussein.
The UN demands on Iraq include rescinding Baghdad's order annexing Kuwait, locating all mines and booby traps in Kuwait, and accepting liability for loss, damage, or injury resulting from the Aug. 2 invasion. As they're implemented, such steps should also help allay the explosive animosities left in the wake of war.
Pockets of Iraqi resistance, where word of the war's end has not penetrated, will soon disappear. More difficult will be the quelling of violence among Kuwaitis who have lost friends and relatives and who want revenge. Restored civil authority should keep those passions in bounds.
Washington has affirmed that the US military will not have a continuing role on the ground in the Gulf as this conflict recedes. That's wise. Arab nations are eager to show they can handle the peacekeeping task themselves, and they should be given every opportunity to do so.