How can the US not act on Iraq?

The minuet goes on. The Iraqis proclaim they have no weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration believes this is preposterous and untrue.

How this charade will be played out by the diplomats remains to be seen. But behind the diplomatic maneuvering, planning goes forward for the ouster of Saddam Hussein, which motivates President Bush's policy toward Iraq.

The troops and planes and tanks are in position and almost ready to move. Reliable sources report that the Bush administration is sounding out a string of other countries about a post-Hussein regime.

Bob Woodward, in his new book "Bush at War," cites National Security Council minutes indicating that from the first White House deliberations after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Hussein has been in the administration's sights. All that postponed the move to oust him was the president's focus on dealing with Al Qaeda and the Taliban first.

Despite Hussein's protestations that he has no banned weaponry, and despite a wishy-washy "apology" for invading Kuwait, it belies belief that anything but a decision to step down could now save Hussein from US wrath and military power.

A reformed Iraq, leaving Hussein in office, is about as conceivable as leaving Hitler in power after vanquishing fascism from World War II Germany, or leaving Osama bin Laden at large after protestations that Al Qaeda has seen the light and henceforth will be kindly and compassionate.

We can always hope for repentance, but we can't be naive in the face of evil. Can there be any doubt that the world, and Iraqis in particular, would be better off without Hussein?

A new report released last week chronicled effectively the human cost of his policies. The dossier was compiled not by some war-drum-thumping agency of the US government, but by the usually understated British. Outlining the Iraqi leader's "crimes and human rights abuses," the British government report found that Iraq "is a terrifying place to live." People live in constant fear of being denounced as opponents of the regime. They are encouraged to report on the activities of family and neighbors. The security services can strike at any time. Arbitrary arrests and killings are commonplace. Between 3 million and 4 million Iraqis - 15 percent of the population - have fled their homeland rather than live under Hussein's regime.

"Fear," says the report, "is Saddam's chosen method for staying in power."

The report is based on testimony from Iraqi exiles, the UN, human rights organizations, and intelligence sources. It examines the Iraqi regime's record on torture, the treatment of women - including systematic rape- prison conditions, the persecution of the Kurds and the Shiites, and the occupation of Kuwait.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair cut to the core of the civilized world's problem with Iraq when he said: "Our quarrel is with Saddam, not the Iraqi people. They deserve better. Iraq is a country with a very talented population, a country that is potentially rich and successful. We want to welcome it back into the international community. We want the people to be free to live fulfilling lives without the oppression and terror of Saddam."

This concept of freeing Iraqis to live lives full of hope and promise is perhaps the most persuasive motivation for removing Hussein. Ensuring that he has no dangerous weaponry to use in the cause of terrorism is, of course, a good thing. But exposing a good-sized chunk of the Islamic world to democracy is a noble goal. It has ramifications for neighboring Iran, where Muslim students are tired of the extremism of the ruling mullahs. It might set an example for other Arab lands wallowing in backwardness and despair.

It is not clear how the Bush administration plans to cleanse Iraq after ousting Hussein. Earlier there was speculation about a period of military rule similar to the post-World War II occupation of Japan. Lately, thinking seems to have moved in the direction of a UN mandate, or rule by an international coalition.

What is intriguing is Mr. Woodward's account of how quickly the White House moved to accept a phase of peacekeeping and nation building after ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

He writes, "The overriding lesson from the 1990s in Afghanistan was: Don't leave a vacuum." Thus the president and his advisers came speedily to embrace "nation building on a huge scale."

Clearly, the need for such major US involvement will be replicated in Iraq after Hussein is gone.

John Hughes, editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News, is a former editor of the Monitor.

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