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President Bush is starting to sound as though he's had second thoughts about ending the gulf war before toppling the Baghdad regime. Much as we'd welcome the end of the tyrant Saddam Hussein, we wonder what Bush is up to.

The decision not to send coalition armies all the way to Baghdad left unresolved the question of Iraq's postwar government. As expected, anti-Saddam revolts broke out.What remains of Saddam's army is rushing from city to city to suppress insurgents. With little reliable information coming out of Iraq, it is difficult to project the outcome, though the regime's ruthlessness and weaponry give it an edge.

Weeks ago, Bush said openly he hoped the people of Iraq would oust Saddam. But now the president is issuing warnings that imply the possibility of U.S. intervention.

Through United Nations channels, Washington has "strongly advised" Baghdad not to use chemical weapons to quell domestic unrest. The president protested the use of combat helicopters to shoot insurgents, saying that no permanent cease-fire - or withdrawal of U.S. troops from southern Iraq - is possible if such weapons are used against civilians. Finally, Bush cautioned Iran not to seize territory in neighboring Iraq.

Having decided against an American-managed change of regime, Bush now seems to want to control events from a distance.

We supported stopping the war when the president did, even though this left a grisly dictator in power. It also left the daunting choice of any new government in Iraqi hands, where it belongs.

All of the likely options are flawed: another dictator from Saddam's Baathist party, a military strongman, an Islamic regime, Lebanonization.

Some two dozen opposition factions in exile propose a "democratic" alternative, but they inspire little confidence. Their sponsor is repressive Syria; they represent irreconcilable tendencies, from communist to liberal to Islamic fundamentalist.

If the president can prevent Saddam from crushing the insurgents before they crush him, that will be another great accomplishment. But it is still unwise for the United States to determine who will rule in Baghdad.