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Restraint and Firepower

March 22, 2003

Televised scenes of residents in Iraqi towns giddily tearing down posters of dictator Saddam Hussein suggest that so far, at least, some see the U.S. and British troops storming their beleaguered land as the "liberators" the Bush administration has long said they would be.

No doubt those experiencing the massive bombardment of Baghdad are feeling more fear than relief at the moment. But there, too, the allied forces appear to be sticking to their stated goal of attempting to force a swift surrender by Hussein loyalists, with minimal civilian casualties and damage to the roads, electrical grids and water systems that the people depend upon.

Indeed, despite spectacular displays of firepower, restraint seems to be the order of the day. The U.S. military deserves credit for Wednesday's bold surprise attack on Hussein and his sons at a residential compound on the outskirts of Baghdad -- a limited missile assault whose effect is still uncertain. And by delaying the "shock and awe" air assault, allied war planners gave Iraqi commanders a chance to overthrow Hussein or defect with their troops. Only when they refused did the U.S. launch the overwhelming display of destructive power designed to persuade Iraqi leaders to reconsider.

Meanwhile, U.S. and British ground forces were already making impressive advances, crossing into Iraq from Kuwait and reportedly gaining control of a port and critical oil fields. That's important. The oil will be needed to pay for rebuilding the country when the fighting stops. Keeping utilities and oil lines intact will also make it easier for the United States to keep its promise to restore Iraq and return it to its people.

It's a good sign that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in addition to repeating the need to rid Iraq of its chemical and biological weapons, also emphasized the importance of improving life for Iraqis and helping the country develop its own government after decades of dictatorship. Congress and the American people must hold the Bush administration to that pledge.

Many Iraqi troops have already surrendered. U.S. and British casualties have been low. If Hussein's Republican Guards decide to make a stand in the nation's capital, the dangers to invading troops and Iraqi civilians will increase dramatically. Tensions between the Turks and Kurds pose a threat. But the first days of the second Gulf war have rewarded military planning and flexibility with many successes. For that, even those who advised against the U.S. entering Iraq without United Nations support -- including this editorial page -- can be glad.

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