The furor over pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda fills headlines. But no matter what the determinations are on these important issues, the main focus of U.S. policy must now be on answering one overriding question: what should we be doing to win the peace in Iraq, for us and for the Iraqi people.

Reconstruction efforts have gotten off to a difficult start. American soldiers are dying nearly every day in guerilla assaults. Weapons of mass destruction – if they exist – have not been found. Saddam Hussein’s connection to al Qaeda is elusive. The Iraqi people are unhappy with a lack of basic services, employment and security, and feel alienated from the process of governing and rebuilding their own country. If conditions don’t improve in the coming months, mistrust between the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and Iraqis could become endemic, with severe consequences for our troops and the Iraqi people.

Our first priority must be establishing greater security. If violence and lawlessness continue to reign, we will lose control of events on the ground. The mission for coalition forces should shift to peacekeeping operations and aggressive intelligence-gathering to capture Saddam Hussein, and to root out foreign terrorists and Baathist fighters. Iraqis must have a sense of public safety in order to get on with rebuilding their country. We should give our forces enhanced resources to get this job done, including more troops as necessary.

We should redouble efforts to get basic services like water and electricity running, and put idle hands to work. Mass unemployment and squalor are recipes for disaster – Iraqis will ask why we can pinpoint missiles from the sky, but cannot restore prewar levels of power and employment. Helping Iraqis improve their standard of living is essential to winning the battle for hearts and minds.

Both security and reconstruction would greatly benefit from enhanced international cooperation. Sustaining a long-term U.S. administration and an occupation force of some 150,000 American troops is not feasible. International partners can supply necessary increases – in troops and resources – that will lower the costs and risks to the United States.

To obtain broader support, the preferable approach would be seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution outlining the U.N.’s role. President Bush contends that this authority is not necessary, and he may be technically correct. But further U.N. action would substantially increase the legitimacy of our actions in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the world. A new U.N. mandate is seen as a precondition for contributing forces or aid by many countries – including NATO allies. The U.S. will retain control over events in Iraq because it will be the dominant force on the ground, but the U.N., and possibly NATO, can effectively partner in peacekeeping, planning and administration. It is not a concession to diffuse authority – it would be a boon to U.S. efforts, and relax the burden on Americans.

Finally, the U.S. should transfer real powers to Iraqis as quickly as feasible. The creation of the representative Iraqi governing council was a good first step. This Council – and bodies like it on the regional and local level – must gradually take control of important aspects of day-to-day governance. We can begin this process by enabling Iraqis to prosecute war criminals and manage oil exports, and we can help Iraqis build a foundation of liberty: the rule of law, courts, police, an independent press, political parties and civic organizations. We must continue to be clear that our goal is a legitimate government run by Iraqis for Iraqis, with fair representation of the ethnic, religious and political make-up of the country.

The final judgment on whether this war was worthwhile will not come with the toppling of a statue, the discovery of weapons of mass destruction, or the killing or capture of Saddam Hussein. It will depend upon what kind of Iraq we leave behind. If Iraq becomes a democracy, the U.S. will get the credit; if Iraq dissolves into chaos or authoritarian rule, we will get the blame. Our reputation is on the line. We must recognize that this is a long and challenging endeavor, and we must act quickly to put our efforts on the right track. The precedent in Afghanistan is, thus far, not encouraging. We must have patience while progress is slow, persistence when setbacks occur, and international cooperation when it is needed.

If we help forge a peaceful and stable Iraq grounded in democratic principles, we will enhance the safety and security of Iraqis and Americans. Achieving this goal requires more than fighting a war – it requires the sustained commitment of the American people, our allies, and the Iraqi people.