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President Bush is riding a wave of public support since toppling Saddam Hussein, even without finding indisputable proof that the Iraqi dictator had built a store of biological or chemical weapons, which was the principal justification for the war.

But while the war in Iraq has largely ended, that country's potential for undermining Bush's re-election plans has not. The question of banned weapons aside, the ultimate success in Iraq will not be defined by the United States' unquestioned power to remove a weak and rotten regime, but in its ability to fashion a free, working, democratic Iraq and, in so doing, create the possibility of a prosperous and stable Middle East.

It is far too early to draw any conclusions on the likely success of that project, but it is not too early to observe that things are not going well. The president would do well, for the moment, to forget about tax cuts and give his full attention to the need to put an end to the looting and violence that has plagued post-war Iraq and hindered American plans to put the country back on its feet, and headed toward democracy.

The New York Times reported this week that before the first bomb fell in Iraq, the Bush administration had produced a plan, nearly as detailed as the war plan, itself, to quickly restore power and other services in Iraq. One of the keys of the military plan, though, was a flexibility that gave Gen. Tommy Franks the ability to make quick adjustments to suit conditions and opportunities.

However detailed the post-war plan may have been, it clearly lacks the flexibility to deal with an outbreak of lawlessness whose duration and intensity has taken the administration by surprise and has threatened to derail the goal of quickly giving authority over Iraq back to Iraqis. From its ill-considered decision to put retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner in charge of the rebuilding effort to the failure to establish a functioning police presence in the country, the administration is fumbling, or appearing to fumble, the crucial task of restoring stability to the country.

Things may be about to improve. Garner is out and L. Paul Bremer III, a career diplomat, is in as the American administrator of Iraq. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who led the city's response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is to lead a team of policing experts in cracking down on street crime in Baghdad.

It's fair to point out that the country, after decades of Saddam's rule, was in poor shape even before the war. What is more, the one or two months after the war may not be as telling as the first year or two. If life in Iraq soon begins to come under control, then the administration can proceed with its post-war plan and Americans may again be seen as liberators rather than occupiers.

But the Bush administration cannot assume it will have many chances to get this right. Having resorted to the extreme remedy of war to deal with Saddam, it must now focus intently on providing the remedy to the remedy. If it doesn't, Bush still has time to lose next year's election and at the same time to deprive the world of what may be its best chance to repair the cultural corruption of the Middle East.