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Political Shoring-Up Follows Mopping-Up

After Panama Assault: a US Price to Be Paid

THE United States military thrust to topple Manuel Noriega from power in Panama is largely over, officials here say. Now comes the tough part: repairing the country's crippled political and economic institutions. The continuing perils of Philippine President Corazon Aquino show that even home-grown democratic revolutions can run into trouble. The new Panamanian government of President Guillermo Endara must deal with its image as a gringo-installed regime, as well as a collapsed economy.

Much depends on the staying power of US interest. Will congressional and US public support for the intervention in Panama falter if it becomes a lengthy police action and requires ever-larger amounts of aid?

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``There are no time lines for this,'' said Secretary of State James Baker III at a press briefing Wednesday.

By Thursday morning US troops were still engaged in mopping-up operations. The general's loyalists apparently still held at least a dozen Americans hostage and sporadic gunfire rattled early today through the capital's streets, where armed thugs roamed and looters reigned.

Pentagon officials said organized resistance to the intervention had ended, but that isolated groups of Panamanian Defense Force troops and ``Dignity Battalions'' remained loyal to Noriega and armed. The tiny former dictator himself, pointedly called ``Mr.'' instead of ``General'' by US officials, remained at large.

US officials were playing down the effects of letting Noriega slip through their fingers, but by offering a bounty of $1 million for his capture they undercut their words. Noriega's homely visage, almost a Hollywood vision of a tinhorn despot, shadowed the intervention in a number of major ways. Central America's Qaddafi

For one thing, it provided a devil image that made the operation acceptable in the US, noted analysts. Reports of his drug dealings and personal execution of attempted coup leaders have only added to his US image as Central America's Muammar Qaddafi.

``He's someone the American people hate,'' said University of Houston Latin American expert John Sloan. ``You could use US power against him almost without paying any kind of political price.''

But that same devil image could become a fright mask troubling President Endara. If Noriega is not captured, the threat he would pose could cause the new government to hide behind security measures and political initiatives that lessen its legitimacy in the eyes of the Panamanian people.

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``The real risk is Noriega's network of agents and friends and thugs, and whether or not the fear he's able to engender wil paralyze the civilian leadership,'' said John Roberts, De Paul University dean and a former government Panama analyst.

The perceived legitimacy of the Panamanian government will be a crucial factor in its success. In Endara's favor is the fact that he is not just a US puppet, but was duly elected president in elections last May that Noriega stole. US officials stress that they are not imposing a government on Panama but are restoring one, or at least allowing one to take office.

Some stigma is sure to follow from the fact that Endara has marched to power backed by US tanks, however. Some analysts feel the US would have been better off to back the Panmanian officers' coup attempt of October, even in a blatant manner. Then ``at the end of the day the people of Panama could stand up quite proudly and say `we did that,' not `the gringos did it for us again,''' says Robert Kurz, a Brookings Institution Latin America fellow. New US responsibilities

The question now, says Mr. Kurz, is what the US will do with the responsiblities it has just acquired in Panama. Order has collapsed in the country, because Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces had been the police. The economy collapsed some time ago, partly as the result of Noriega looting, but also because of the squeeze of US economic sanctions.

``I think we just acquired responsibility for the economy,'' said Kurz. Secretary of State Baker admitted as much, and said that of course the US government would now be much more open to a package of economic aid for Panama. As one of his first actions after the intervention, President Bush lifted US sanctions on Panama's dollar-based economy.

``Elimination of the sanctions, I think, will go a long way toward alleviating much of the pressure that's on the Panamanian economy,'' Baker said. Good support at home - so far

Support in the United States for the intervention appeared strong and bipartisan in its immediate aftermath. This was partly a recognition that whenever US soldiers are in the field they should not be undercut by political bickering. US House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington said that given the circumstances now is not the time for a ``complicated debate'' about the operation.

A number of Republicans claimed that support for the operation in Congress would remain bipartsian even in its aftermath. To some, extent Democrats have been hoist by their own petard, noted Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. Their complaints about Bush foreign policy have to this point beat on the theme that the President was too timid.

``It's going to be hard for those Democrats, whose quotes are available, now to say anything but, `the President's done the right thing,''' Senator Dole said.

But Dole also remarked that ``I don't want to be an occupying force in Panama.'' And therein lies the danger for the Bush administration. The breakdown of order in Panaman will necessiate a US occupying force. US public support for the action could turn on how long that force must stay.

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