WASHINGTON -- Americans knew the Gulf War was won when U.S. troops saw a liberated Kuwait in the rearview mirrors of their Humvees.
This time around, victory might be harder to define.
Would seeing U.S.-led coalition forces rolling down the streets of Baghdad mean they had won? Must Iraqi President Saddam Hussein be captured? Or just ousted and his weapons padlocked?
Will victory be attained only when Americans feel safer at home?
While agreeing that defeating Saddam is doable, military and foreign affairs experts and others have differing views about precisely when Americans might be able to celebrate a V-I Day.
''The first time we'll know we've won is when we see scores of Iraqi soldiers surrendering,'' said military analyst Dan Goure at the Lexington Institute think tank in Arlington, Va. ''The second indication will be the occupation of Baghdad.''
James Phillips, a Mideast expert at the Heritage Foundation, will be waiting for the moment that Iraq is ''de-fanged'' -- Saddam is out of power and his weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles are disarmed.
Americans shouldn't cheer until retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the man heading the Pentagon's interagency postwar planning team, walks into Baghdad and punches the time clock at his job as civil administrator in a postwar Iraq, says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert and former special assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.
President Bush says any military action he orders will have two goals: change the government and disarm Iraq.
Vice President Dick Cheney has described several stages of an accomplished mission.
''Our objective will be, if we go in, to defeat whatever forces oppose us, to take down the government of Saddam Hussein,'' he said.
Then, ''eliminating all the weapons of mass destruction,'' preserving the territory of Iraq and neighboring Turkey, and establishing a representative government, he said.
Ousting Saddam, regardless of how, would mean instant victory, said Della Jaff, an activist from Reston, Va., who hails from the northern Iraqi town of Halabja, where Iraqi forces used chemical weapons in 1988 during the war with Iran. ''When the head goes, that's it,'' she said after a brief Oval Office meeting with Bush last week.
Anthony Cordesman, a leading expert on Iraq and U.S. military power, said knowing the precise moment of a potential military victory isn't important because any war against Iraq won't end when the guns fall silent.
''There is a very high probability that the world faces years of tension and uncertainty as the internal future of Iraq is decided,'' he said.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a Washington attorney who is protesting the war, says there is no winning it. ''To launch a first-strike attack against a country that is not threatening us? That can only escalate a cycle of violence that ultimately cannot be good for people back in the United States.''
In the Gulf War, Americans sat in front of their TVs, gazing at laser-guided bombs pulverizing targets, Iraqi soldiers surrendering en masse and then the endnote: Kuwaitis tooting horns and celebrating in the streets.
Still, Saddam was left in power. And part of the U.S. justification for attacking Iraq now is that it has not lived up to the cease-fire terms demanding the elimination of weapons of mass destruction. In that sense, a new war continues the last one.
In Afghanistan, the U.S.-led war drove the Taliban government from power but thousands of coalition soldiers are still deployed, hunting down members of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Bush once said that the operation in Afghanistan wouldn't be over until Gen. Tommy Franks said: ''Mission complete.''
The nation will be listening.
Deb Riechmann covers national affairs in Washington.
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