THE FIRST NEWLY freed Iraqis emerged cautiously onto the streets of Safwan on Friday -- cautious not because they feared U.S. Marines but because they could hardly believe that Saddam Hussein and his apparatus of terror ruled them no more. By yesterday families with children were lining roads near the southern city of Basra, waving and cheering at U.S. and British forces as they rumbled north. Some of those troops were encountering significant Iraqi resistance, and the war appeared far from over. But in its first three days the Iraq campaign was making rapid progress toward the systematic destruction of an aggressive and murderous regime and the liberation of a long-suffering people.

The images of flaming government buildings in Baghdad and endless television talk of "shock and awe" were somewhat misleading. In fact, casualties seemed to have been kept to a minimum in the war's opening days, while precision bombing in Baghdad spared the electricity and water systems, and by Iraqi accounts, all but a small number of civilians. U.S. losses have been light, if painful: At least seven servicemen were reported killed by late yesterday. More than a thousand Iraqi soldiers have surrendered rather than fight for Saddam Hussein, while many others appear to have taken off their uniforms and melted away. Others, to be sure, were fighting tenaciously, and U.S. forces had yet to test the toughest and most loyal divisions of Saddam Hussein, which are grouped around Baghdad. But the allied ground forces were advancing rapidly, so much so that some officers predicted they could reach the capital within days.

Much that could have gone wrong, moreover, had not. The Marines succeeded in securing the vast Rumaila oil field after only nine of its 500 wells had gone up in flames, averting, at least in that area, the destruction of Iraq's vital resource. Allied special forces also minimized the threat of missile attacks on Israel by seizing Iraqi bases in western Iraq. No chemical and biological attacks had yet been launched against allied forces or Iraqi civilians, no dams had been breached, and terrorist attacks so far have been limited to a single car bomb in northern Iraq. Hard fighting surely lies ahead, as do deadly surprises -- such as the grenade attack inside the 101st Airborne Division camp in central Kuwait. But with each passing day the odds increase that many of the disasters that had been feared can be averted.

For all the initial success, the bitter political and diplomatic divides the war has opened show no sign of closing. There have been angry and occasionally violent demonstrations against the war across the Middle East, in the United States and in many other parts of the world. Hostile media have seized on the footage of Baghdad to claim falsely that Iraq is being devastated. Relations between Turkey and the United States teeter at the brink of crisis over the potential entry of Turkish troops into northern Iraq. France and Russia meanwhile persist in their efforts to build an anti-American bloc in and outside the United Nations. French President Jacques Chirac threatens to obstruct a U.N. resolution on a postwar regime unless France is allowed to dictate terms to those who now do the fighting. The obstructionist diplomats, and many of the antiwar demonstrators, closed their eyes to the threat of Saddam Hussein and the terror of his regime. They ought now look at Iraqis who are greeting the Marines as liberators.