THE United States is in the difficult position of seeming to do either too much, or too little, in Iraq. American forces occupy 15 percent of the country, and their presence was a factor in encouraging rebels in southern Iraq. The US and its allies hold tremendous leverage over Baghdad through the threat of force, their control over the final terms of a cease-fire, and the ongoing economic sanctions.
Nonetheless, President Bush has reaffirmed that he's determined not to interfere in Iraq's civil strife. Saddam Hussein's soldiers are free to crush the rebels. And Washington shuns contact with Kurds in the north or the now largely subdued Shiite Muslim insurgents in the south.
US reluctance to try to shape events within Iraq is well advised. Direct intervention could stir renewed anti-Americanism in the region and generate charges that the US is trying to impose a government on Iraq. Still, Washington could be doing more than it is to move developments in that shattered country in a more positive direction.
First, the US should be clearly describing the kind of government it would like to see in Iraq. Some specialists on Iraq suggest the articulation of "neutral principles" - which could include United Nations involvement in establishing a transitional government in Iraq, greater representation for all Iraq's people, respect for human rights, and constitutional reform. This would send signals not only to Baghdad, but to the rebels as well.
Second, the US should talk with the Iraqi opposition groups. These people have been systematically repressed by Saddam, and their efforts to throw off his yoke deserve moral support, at the least. Kurds and Shiites - who make up a large majority of Iraqis - should help shape a new Iraq. The US can convey to them and to the powerful Sunni Muslim minority its preference for a more democratic Iraq without appearing to back either an independent Kurdistan or an Islamic republic in the south.
The prospect of a fragmenting Iraq sends chills through Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But the worries of those US allies shouldn't obscure the goal of helping Iraqis replace Saddam with something better. Talk about democracy may make the Saudis uncomfortable, but democracy is the American recommendation for any country - Iraq, and Kuwait, for that matter, not excepted.
The official hope in Washington is that Iraq will weather the civil conflict, and that its people, or army, will then dispense with Saddam. But Saddam's party, the Baath, is entrenched. His immediate successor is likely to share his political views.
By articulating principles of better government and by showing its respect for forces within Iraq that are striving for freedom, the US could moderate the tendency toward dictatorship. The cease-fire arrangements and the sanctions are levers to help bring those principles into operation and ward off fresh repression in the wake of rebellion.