The idea that a weakened Saddam Hussein, or one of his cohorts, can ultimately hold Iraq together is a pipe dream.

Taken as allied policy, this assumption is a license from the victors for his continued butchery of the Iraqi people.Nothing is going to reverse the fragmentation of Iraq except outside intervention.

Saddam's authority is in tatters.

Iraqis rightly hold his regime responsible for the catastrophe of the war.

Rebels are grouped by ethnic and sectarian divisions, not because they want a Shiite or a Kurdish state but because this is the only way they can organize.

Over time, however, the spontaneous uprising will be taken over by neighboring countries that want to shape Iraq in their image.

The gulf war was the biggest event in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Did the United States send 500,000 troops halfway across the world so Iraq's unsavory neighbors could decide its future and that of the entire Mideast?

The scale of the Iraqi defeat carries with it a historic opportunity for a new beginning, one likely to shape the region's politics in less than a generation.

But first the allied forces must recognize and work with the Iraqi insurgents.

Then Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has to acquire the vision of a Gen. Douglas MacArthur and march into Baghdad.

In between, the United States should assure the Iraqi people that economic aid would be forthcoming if Saddam is ousted, and it should denounce the central government as an outlaw regime.

Refugees should be allowed to cross into Kuwait.

With so much at stake, the Bush administration is conducting politics as usual, failing to decide whether to push openly for Saddam's ouster or to let it happen naturally, whether to give aid to the Kurds and Shiites or do nothing, whether to remain in Iraq for several months or to pull out the troops.

But to turn back now is to invite further disaster.

Preserving the victory is more important than victory itself.

What would have happened if the United States had withdrawn from Europe after World War II, with no commitment to democracy and economic reconstruction?

For eight months Americans were obsessed with Saddam.

Was it all about purchasing the sovereignty of Kuwait at the expense of the sovereignty of Iraq, which if left alone would fragment and be allowed to fester and rot?

If so, then the outcome will be instability for generations to come.

And instability in the fertile crescent will spill onto the Arabian Peninsula as it has always done.

No postwar security arrangements will hold back the spread of poisonous ideas.

If Arabs remember the war as having been simply about destroying Iraq, then it will have sowed a legacy of hate and bitterness.

The Middle East will be worse off after the war than it was before in spite of the demise of Saddam.

The people of Iraq need help from the very armies that have crippled them.

Only with the ouster of Saddam and his Baathist regime can it be said that the gulf war did the Arab world a service, as terrible as the price has been.

(Samir al-Khalil is the author of "Republic of Fear.")