The United States finally laid to rest the ghost of its defeat in Vietnam with a major military victory over a vicious dictator that opens a new era in the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was forced to accept, step by humiliating step, all 12 U.N. resolutions requiring that he renounce his claims to Kuwait and admit responsibility for reparations.

President Bush becomes the American leader who organized and sent abroad the largest expeditionary force since World War II and led a coalition of 28 nations to victory. And he has done it with a minimum of casualties. Iraq's casualties, on the other hand, have likely been very high."Kuwait is liberated," the president said in suspending hostilities at midnight. "Iraq's army is defeated. Our military objectives are met. "

Baghdad radio opened its Thursday broadcast with a boast that Iraq retained its dignity and bowed its head to no one, but even Saddam may have a hard time explaining his defeat. Diplomats noted it was Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz and not Saddam or his Revolutionary Command Council who swallowed the humiliation of the U.N. resolutions. This time Bush did not demand that Saddam answer personally.

Saddam has turned defeat into victory before, and no one can yet see an alternative. He has escaped with his life. For the moment, he leads Iraq's government. He will say he has put the Palestinian issue at the top of the Middle East agenda.

But in just 100 hours of ground fighting and six weeks of war, the army he put at a million men was stripped of the heavy weapons - the latest Soviet tanks, artillery and planes - that made it a threat to its neighbors.

Saddam has been a master at stringing out prisoner-of-war negotiations in the past, but it is hard to see how he can do it this time. Anything else would restore the hostilities he has sought to escape.

The euphoric rejoicing, however, is promised to be short. A heavy pall of black smoke hung over Kuwait from at least 400 of Kuwait's 1,300 oil wells set afire by Iraqi troops. Huge oil slicks float in the Persian Gulf. The environmental damage will last for years.

A lot of relations will have to be repaired, among the Arab countries who opposed Saddam and those that sided with him, among many if not most Arabs and the United States, perhaps even between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Finally, one of the victors was the United Nations. For the first time, in this crisis, its five permanent members were able to get together to force the retreat of an aggressor.

Peace came at midnight, exorcising old ghosts of American impotence but still just a little ambiguous about what it means for the future.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service