BAGHDAD – They are everywhere in the Iraqi capital, the young men and women of the U.S. armed forces, patrolling the streets in humvees in tandem with newly rehired Iraqi policemen, directing traffic, and blocking key streets.

They are guarding banks as Iraqi children peer into tank windows. Soldiers are shopping in groups of three or four in grocery stores on Karada Street for food to supplement the military’s monotonous meals-ready-to-eat.

Two things strike me as I chat with these cheerful kids from Missouri or the Florida Panhandle.

First, they are very vulnerable. The spate of armed attacks on U.S. troops is still few in number and probably the product of disgruntled Saddamists. Iraqis are in a state of suspended animation, glad Saddam is gone, but anxious about when the Americans will restore water, electricity and security – and an Iraqi government. I would hate to see Iraqis’ mood sour.

Second, these kids are part of an occupying army. The United Nations Security Council resolution that the Bush administration pushed through recently made the occupation official. It recognized the United States and Great Britain as “occupying powers.”

This is a very big shift. Until very recently, U.S. officials spoke only of “liberation,” not occupation. Plans were afoot to hold a political conference in Baghdad that would transfer political power to an interim Iraqi government.

In the last couple of weeks, all that has changed, in ways that make me nervous for those kids on Karada Street.

U.S. officials were stunned by the anarchy and looting that hit Iraqi cities after Saddam fell. They didn’t expect it and weren’t prepared to handle it. The White House rushed in a tough new civilian viceroy, ex-diplomat Paul Bremer, to try to restore some order in Baghdad.

Bremer’s instincts are partly right. As the heat rises to 100 degrees, he must restore basic services such as electricity (and air conditioning), water, garbage collection and policing. Already, one hears dark charges by educated and ordinary folk alike that America has deliberately destroyed Baghdad to justify occupation and seize Iraqi oil.

But, as the magnitude of his task hits home, Bremer seems ready to freeze the Iraqi political process. The conference of Iraqi political parties that was supposed to pick a broad-based interim government may never be held. Instead, Bremer looks ready to settle for appointing an interim “authority” of Iraqi technocrats.

This will leave the United States out in the open as occupier without any credible Iraqi partner. When things go wrong, and they will, all the blame will fall on U.S. shoulders.

Already, the former opposition groups (now relocated to Baghdad) who were set to convene the conference are voicing their anger.

“They told us, ‘Liberation now,’ and then they made it occupation,” I was told by Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress. “Bush said he was a liberator, not an occupier, and we supported the United States on this basis.”

The arguments for outright occupation may look compelling on paper. The short-term tasks facing the administration in Iraq – about which it never forewarned Americans – are staggering. The entire Iraqi economy is at a standstill, and, having disbanded the army and the Baath party, U.S. officials have created hundreds of additional jobless who could make trouble in the future. It’s not surprising that Bremer would probably prefer to concentrate power in American hands.

And setting up an interim government would be a huge challenge. The Group of Seven – the seven leaders of political parties and groups who were organizing the conference – doesn’t represent all Iraqis. Some in the group are controversial. But there are ways to make the conference more representative. The Group of Seven can be expanded and additional conference delegates chosen from provincial cities.

Without a credible Iraqi governing partner, the United States will stand uncomfortably exposed – both in Iraq and abroad. Iraq is not the Japan of post-World War II, nor does it have an emperor who will tell his people to cooperate with American occupying forces. After a few months, Iraqis will chafe under direct American rule.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Bremer’s civilian team, known as ORHA (the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance), needs Iraqi political help. It operates from a former Saddam palace with four huge heads of the great leader on high platforms flanking the doors. Harried staff sit beneath painted ceilings flanked by Italian marble pillars, but they have no air conditioning and no decent communications system with the outside world.

“You need a political partner,” says Hoshyar Zebari, spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, another conference convener. “A government made up of technocrats won’t survive long. It won’t have political support.

“If there is a national government, people can make their complaints. Now they must go to the Americans. We told the Americans: Why take all the blame?”

Why, indeed?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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