U.S. planners expected that the military and political structure of southern Iraq would implode in the early days of the war. But on Saturday at the crossroads of the highways linking Baghdad, Basra, Umm Qasr and Kuwait, it was obvious that this strategy wasn't working out as planned.

Iraqi fighters were still operating in every direction: The road south to Umm Qasr was unsafe; the road east to Basra was unsafe; the road north to Nasiriyah and Baghdad was unsafe. Even the road back into Kuwait was uncertain.

By dusk Saturday night, retreating to Kuwait seemed the wisest choice, and it's from the relative tranquility of Kuwait City that I am writing this column. Reporters who stayed inside Iraq through the weekend and returned to Kuwait yesterday morning said the situation in the south continues to be very unstable because of rear-guard actions by Iraqi commandos.

Whatever misjudgments may have been made about how Iraqis would react to a U.S.-led invasion, it's clear that American-led forces must now push on with their military campaign and finish it as quickly as possible. Only when Saddam Hussein's regime is gone can the international community begin to establish order and supply the humanitarian assistance the Iraqi people desperately need.

That humanitarian aid is waiting in ships offshore that can dock at Umm Qasr once the firing stops and mines near the port are cleared. And teams of international aid workers in Kuwait are poised to move into Iraq to restore water, power, food supplies and orderly life for the civilian population. But they can't provide this aid in the middle of a war zone, so for the moment it must wait.

That is the paradox of the Iraq campaign today: To secure peace and stability, it is necessary to keep fighting and destroy the regime's hold on the Iraqi cities that have been bypassed on the way to the decisive battle in Baghdad. Aid workers can then show the Iraqis the humane face of the American-led coalition and the prospective benefits of life after Hussein.

Seeking information about the situation in Iraq, I entered the country at dawn Saturday with a group of "unilateral" journalists. Unlike many of the reporters covering the war, we were not "embedded" with coalition military forces but were free to operate on our own.

The border was officially closed, but we were able to find breaks in the sand berms along the frontier, cross the demilitarized zone and enter Iraq. We knew that we were taking risks in doing so, but that seemed a necessary part of our work.

Questions about press coverage are far less important than the war itself right now. But I hope the Pentagon sees value in a system that includes both embedded and unilateral reporters. The embedded reporters are providing a powerful view of the war as it looks to their units. Some of those images have been stunning -- such as the footage by CNN's Walter Rodgers of the 7th Cavalry racing north across the desert. As one television producer said of the embedded coverage, "This is the ultimate in reality TV."

There's still a need for unilateral reporters who can travel about the country interviewing soldiers and civilians, testing military claims and assembling a broader perspective on the war.

What was troubling in Iraq this past weekend was how many questions the military seemed unable to answer. To finish this job, the U.S.-led coalition will need good intelligence. Who are the fighters putting up such a tough battle in southern cities such as Umm Qasr, Basra and Nasiriyah? Are they local Shia Muslims fighting for their homes, or are they pro-Hussein Sunnis from Baghdad fighting for the survival of the regime? Will the Republican Guard implode in the days ahead, as analysts expected, or will fighting toughen their will? Will there be only a few thousand diehard loyalists, as intelligence officers were predicting several months ago? Or will there be hundreds of thousands?

A postwar civilian administration under retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner is waiting to tell the Iraqi people that Hussein is finished. Its message will be that it's time to go back to work, time for children to return to school, time to restore normal life. If Iraqis accept that message, peace and stability will come to their ravaged country.

But that will take time. The U.S.-led coalition needs to be patient and continue to protect Iraqi civilians as much as it can. For it's the Iraqis who will decide, by their actions, how long this war will last and how much more death and destruction it will bring.