With the dramatic toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in the middle of Baghdad, the war might as well be over. And its outcome was predetermined. In three weeks of war, the United States and British forces fired a total of 26,000 bombs and missiles – 19,000 of which were precision-guided. Iraq didn’t possess even one guided missile to fire back. Any doubt who was going to win?

The United States won the war. Now comes the next challenge: Who will win the peace? And winning the peace in Iraq will be far more difficult than winning the war.

As any student of history (or anyone who has read Margaret McMillan’s outstanding “Paris 1919”) knows, Iraq isn’t a real country. It was invented after World War I, as part of the breakup of the old Ottoman Empire. Decision-makers in Versailles drew new lines on a map, called it Iraq, and tossed in three often-warring populations: the Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims. Each of them would still prefer their own country. It won’t be easy keeping them under one flag.

Everyone agrees. Eventually, Iraq should be governed by Iraqis, elected by their own people. But it will be some time before free elections are possible. After World War II, it took five years before Japan was ready for self-governance. In Iraq, it may take two years. Who governs Iraq in the interim?

The easiest path would be for the U.S. military to run the country. And we deserve it. We beat them fair and square. We sacrificed American lives to liberate the country. Now it’s our right and duty to make sure it’s put back together. As the Romans used to say, to the victor belong the spoils.

Big mistake. The Roman Empire is just what we don’t want to look like. We had a hard enough time convincing the Arab world to accept the U.S. military as an army of liberation. We will never convince them to accept us an army of occupation. It won’t take long before cheers for the arrival of American troops in Baghdad turn into jeers for their continued, armed presence.

The next easiest path would be for the United States to put someone in charge of the country. Unfortunately, it looks like that’s what we’re about to do. While troops were still fighting their way to Baghdad, the American military escorted Ahmed Chalabi, controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress, back into Iraq – with license to form a new government.

Another big mistake. The next leader should be chosen by the people of Iraq, not dictated by the United States. We should not replace one dictator with another. Plus, Chalabi’s a lousy choice.

A member of a powerful, wealthy Baghdad family, he left Iraq in 1958 – the same year the Dodgers left Brooklyn – and hasn’t been back since. He was thrown out of Jordan for bank fraud. And even though he has powerful friends in Congress and the Defense Department, he’s considered an untrustworthy opportunist by the CIA and State Department. He’s the last guy we want to install as our puppet.

So what’s the best answer? If, as President Bush has insisted, we have no interest in occupying Iraq or controlling its supply of oil – if, indeed, our goals are purely and simply to disarm Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein and free the Iraqi people to build a new country – then there’s only one answer: As soon as possible, turn the keys over to Kofi Annan, and give the responsibility for rebuilding Iraq to the United Nations.

True, a lot of Americans are still upset at France and Germany for not going along with the war. But the stakes in Iraq are too high to bear a grudge. Having the U.N. take the lead is the only way to share the enormous cost of reconstruction, estimated at $25 billion a year, a burden Americans should not carry alone. And it bestows legitimacy on any new Iraqi administration – greater legitimacy than any occupying army would ever have.

American forces did a superb job liberating Iraq. But the longer they remain, the more they look like an army of occupation. It’s time for the United Nations to step in.

President Bush made a big mistake in waging war without the support of the United Nations. He would make an even bigger mistake trying to make peace without them.

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