After initial setbacks in what was expected to be a “cakewalk,” the war seems to be going better for U.S. forces these days. But pitfalls could lie ahead. Despite recent television images of some Iraqis cheering U.S. forces and pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, reports in from around the country indicate that the Iraqi people—including the majority Shiite group—seem to be ambivalent toward the U.S. invasion. Although some Iraqi citizens are celebrating the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal reign, many also have nationalist sentiments (as exhibited by people placing an Iraqi flag on the pedestal in central Baghdad where the statue of Hussein once stood) and regard the United States as a foreign invader or colonizer. Some Iraqis who have lost friends and loved ones in the American attack don’t feel very “liberated,” and others question the U.S. commitment to repair the damage the American military inflicted during the war.

In addition, the head of an Iraqi opposition group based in Iran threatened that U.S. forces would face hostile resistance if they stay after ousting Hussein. A radical Shiite leader outside Iraq said that he would likely urge Iraqis to support suicide bombings against the United States if the Bush administration did not allow Iraqis to rule themselves. Even more ominous for the United States are comments from a man with swollen hands whom U.S. forces rescued from being tortured by the Iraqi police. That man, who should seemingly be the most ardent backer of U.S. military activities, warned: “Of course I’m grateful that the Americans saved me. But . . . we [the Iraqis] would not like it if the Americans try to stay here for long.”

Yet the Bush administration seems about to embark on a “post-war” plan that could either prolong extant guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces or regenerate them in the future if the United States engages in a prolonged occupation of the country. Although experiments in local rule are being set up in certain cities, the Bush administration seems intent on appointing former American generals and a coterie of U.S. advisors to run the country for longer than six months. When coupled with Iraqi civilian deaths during the war and “sweet deals” for U.S. companies in reconstructing Iraq and pumping oil, the United States could be perceived in Iraq and the Arab world as an imperial conqueror and exploiter rather than as a liberator. That perception could fuel guerrilla warfare against the “infidel” occupying an Islamic land—as it did during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Russian incursion into Chechnya. Thus, a prolonged American occupation could become a magnet for radical Islamist fighters from around the world. Or resistance could take the form of suicide bombings against occupying forces—as it did against the Israeli military in Palestine and Lebanon. Such forms of irregular armed opposition could be funded and promoted by neighboring Syria and Iran, both of which are not pleased with a U.S. military outpost next door.

To minimize the possibility of such potential calamities and to help the defray costs of a post-war occupation, the Bush administration should avoid direct rule in Iraq and, at the earliest possible moment, turn the stabilization mission over to the United Nations or preferably to an independent international coalition of the willing. They, in turn, should quickly organize a conclave of the major groups in Iraq (similar to what was done in Afghanistan) to set up interim system of governance, which would then lead to rapid elections and self-determination.

A U.S. military dictatorship may well be better than Saddam Hussein’s regime, but could mire the United States in a dangerous, open-ended quagmire. If the Bush administration’s rhetoric about “democratizing” Iraq is not hollow, then it should genuinely let the Iraqi people participate in determining their future and should not try to foolishly make Iraq the 51st state.