Despite the turbulence of recent days, President Bush had the presence of mind to overrule his secretary of state on an emotional time bomb - rebuilding Iraq after the war is over.

Peripatetic diplomat James Baker suggested recently the United States would help finance the tremendous damage done to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.Baker never publicly went into specifics, although one idea was to set up a bank for postwar reconstruction of the region.

But in a meeting with members of Congress nervous about giving aid to postwar Iraq when most domestic programs are being cut, Bush stepped on Baker's idea.

Because of its oil reserves, Iraq is rich enough to rebuild its own country and also to pay reparations to Kuwait if it uses its resources wisely, Bush told the group.

Bush is well aware that his "greatest challenge," as he put it recently, will come after the cease-fire. Then he must muster statesmanship and help forge a peace that will be regarded as cursed by most of the parties involved, especially if Saddam is still alive to cause trouble.

It is now almost assured that U.S. troops will remain in some form in the gulf region. Although Bush keeps saying they won't stay one day longer than necessary, it's that last phrase that is key.

Just as he insisted that the United Nations demand future gulf regional "stability" - a term not yet defined - Bush never spelled out what "as long as necessary" means.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney says "final arrangements" for postwar gulf security have not yet been resolved with the nations involved.

But he said the U.S. naval role in the area will be "more robust" and said if it is necessary for the U.S. military to go back into the gulf area, it will have to move "quickly."

If Saddam remains in power after the war, Bush's challenge will be unenviably difficult.

While Bush was once forced against his will to shake hands with former Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, he will never grant that courtesy to Saddam.

But Bush will have to make some concessions. While he insists on no direct aid to Iraq after the war, with the possible exception of food and medical care, he will be called on to lift the economic sanctions against Iraq. The idea is to permit import of equipment so Iraq can restart its oil business.

The United States thinks it's important to maintain Iraq as an independent country as a balance beam in the shaky Middle East.

The last thing the Bush administration wants is to be accused in a couple of months of having gone to war for nothing. If Saddam survives in power and begins to rebuild his military force, still posing a threat to his neighbors, say White House officials, Americans' anger would be prompt and strong.

If there is one thing Bush has learned about Saddam, it's that he is treacherous and deceitful. The man does not tell the truth, a concept Bush once refused to believe. He does now.

Bush has compassion for the Iraqi people and probably some compunction for the terrible destruction he unleashed against Iraq. But as long as Saddam remains a factor in Middle East politics, Bush will be wary.

If Saddam is neutralized, Iraq will get help to rebuild. But it will be Bush's kind of aid - prudent and cautious.