WASHINGTON -- With the overwhelming initial success of the allied ground thrust against Iraq, Operation Desert Storm is moving close to what may be the most difficult phase of all -- the complex and delicate endgame.
The challenge now will be to convert a sweeping military victory into an enduring political success that does not fuel anti-Americanism and radicalism in the Middle East.
While the triumph of its armed forces may give the U.S.-led coalition almost unlimited latitude in dictating the peace, the analysts say, restraint may serve long-term American interests -- even on the emotion-charged issue of toppling Saddam Hussein.
After the war, said Augustus Richard Norton, a fellow at the International Peace Academy in New York, "the United States will be at the height of our influence. Never in Mideast history have we seen a moment like this. And with foresight and magnanimity, we can grab this extraordinarily opportune moment."
For Washington to be perceived as directly bringing about Hussein's downfall could prove counterproductive, however, for the long-term good of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a whole.
"It may be that the last remaining hope for Saddam to be a winner will be his martyrdom," Norton said. "And we must deny him that victory."
Indeed, some who warned just a week ago that Hussein's survival could mean an Iraqi political victory, now believe that his credibility as either a national or Arab leader has been sufficiently weakened that the allies can afford to allow his future to be decided in Baghdad.
"If there is a wholesale abandonment by the Iraqi army -- through either surrender or being easily overwhelmed -- the generals in Baghdad will feel they have to change the situation," said Judith Kipper of the Brookings Institution.
U.S. involvement in determining whether he survives, politically or physically, "would go against everything we hope to build in the region afterwards," added Riad Ajami, a political economist knowledgeable about Iraq. "Not to allow the Iraqis the right to determine their own leadership is neither desirable nor democratic."
Similarly, analysts note, the 28-nation coalition will have to move deftly to avoid seeming to punish the Iraqi people for what Hussein and his military have done. And it must prevent Iraq from disintegrating into chaos and potential civil strife -- becoming, in one scenario, a gigantic Lebanon.
"We don't want to punish Iraqis for what Saddam has done to them. We don't want to go deep, deep down into society and say anyone who said 'Long live Saddam' must be punished," said William Quandt, a Mideast expert on the Carter administration National Security Council staff.
For similar reasons, U.S. analysts also suggest that the coalition may have to give up hopes of reparations, especially if Hussein is ousted. "We have to make a distinction about what we make Saddam responsible for and what will be required of the next regime," Quandt said.
"If by good luck we see a successor regime, one of the early things we must do is say we won't hold you responsible. Otherwise, there is no way a successor regime could get its feet on the ground. The country is not only broke, but $40 billion in debt."
Ajami estimated that rebuilding Iraq would run as high as $150 billion, which could absorb every penny of its oil revenues for a decade or more.