By Jonathan Freedland
LONDON: The warning was plain. Iraq was a breeding ground of terror, an incubator for Al Qaeda and a clear and present danger to "the civilized world".
Tony Blair was wary of that argument, but George Bush made it the heart of his case. At his eve-of-war press conference back in March, the president cast the coming attack as the next step in a story that had begun on September 11 2001.
Iraq was providing "training and safe haven to terrorists, terrorists who would willingly use weapons of mass destruction against America and other peace-loving countries". The irony is that, at the time, this was not true. But it is now.
With astonishing speed, the United States and Britain are making their nightmares come true. Iraq is fast becoming the land that they warned about: a throbbing hub of terror. Militants bent on murder, all but non-existent in Saddam's Iraq, are now flocking to the country, from Syria, Iran and across the Arab world.
In the way that hippies used to head for San Francisco, jihadists are surging towards Baghdad. For those eager to strike at the US infidel, Iraq is the place to be: a shooting gallery, with Americans in easy firing range. Afghanistan is perilous terrain, but Iraq is open country. For the Islamist hungry for action, there are rich pickings.
Bush insisted that Saddam's Iraq was packed with these people, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice. Proof was always thin, thinner even than the evidence of weapons of mass destruction - which is why Blair, to his credit, never mentioned it. But never mind; events have taken care of that little lacuna in the US argument.
Iraq may not have been a terrorists' paradise at the start of the year - a retirement home for a few has-beens, perhaps - but it is now. Operation Iraqi Freedom blew off the gates, and Islam's holy warriors have rushed in. Like the blind protagonist of a Greek drama, Bush, in seeking to avert a prophecy, has ended up fulfilling it.
Confirmation comes in the daily drip-drip-drip of the death toll, with one or two Americans (and now Britons) dying every 24 hours. It is a wonder the figure is not higher, with coalition forces now facing up to 20 attacks a day. There were more deaths on Tuesday (Sept 2), along with a car bomb at the Baghdad police academy.
Not that the victims have been chiefly Americans. Instead, the biggest strikes have been against those seen to be their partners: the Jordanian embassy, the United Nations and, in Najaf last week, Iraq's most powerful Shia leader. That bomb served as a warning to all Iraqis not to get too cosy with the country's new rulers - if the US cannot protect a first-rank, sympathetic cleric, how safe is everyone else?
The result is that no one wants to stand too close to the occupiers. One member of the new governing council resigned at the weekend; another warned the US viceroy, Paul Bremer, that the council "could become a morgue" if the Americans did not do more to protect its members.
Others are taking the law into their own hands, hiring private bodyguards. Shias, angry at their vulnerability at Najaf, are taking similar steps, looking to groups such as the Badr Brigades to provide security.
This takes Iraq one step closer to a Somalia or Afghanistan scenario: a lawless, failed state, where the only authority is the local warlord. With a murder rate approaching 5,000 a year, that kind of anarchy is not far off. Make no mistake, Saddam's Iraq was an evil tyranny. But it was not a failed state, the ideal climate for nurturing terror. With power and water still not working, thanks to constant sabotage, and thieves stripping vital cables for their copper, it could be soon.
Why is the occupation going so badly wrong? Hubris and incompetence played their part. The Pentagon's civilian planners put plenty of thought into the war, but almost none into the peace. They had a hyperpower's supreme confidence in their own abilities.
But ideology is surely the chief culprit. Republicans can barely spit the words "nation building", so it was a task they preferred not to think about. The Pentagon suits, led by Donald Rumsfeld, are hardcore unilateralists, determined to run the show alone, unencumbered by allies.
They were also desperate to prove that new, 21st-century, pre-emptive wars could be light, nimble affairs conducted with minimal personnel and low budgets. From the outset, this wing of the administration has been determined to run Iraq on the cheap. Even now, they have not 'fessed up about the tens of billions of dollars that Bremer admits will be needed to rebuild a shattered country.
Instead, Team Bush seems to be paralyzed, uncertain what to do with an Iraq adventure that refuses to follow the action-movie script they had written for it. By now they were expecting the credits to roll, with cheers for the US performance. What they have got is a situation trickier than any the US military has faced since Vietnam.
Only the most fervent anti-war voices are calling for a complete and immediate withdrawal; such a sudden vacuum would surely guarantee anarchy. On the contrary, providing basic security and services to Iraq will probably take many more, not fewer, people. There are now 140,000 American troops in the country; those who know say that it will take a force of 500,000.
The extra men cannot come from the US. American public opinion would hear too many echoes of LBJ's Vietnam escalation. Besides, the US military is already overstretched; short of reviving the draft, it just doesn't have the troops (and conscription is not much of a policy for an election year.) Above all, more Americans in Iraq just means more targets for the jihadists to aim at.
Some in the American press have wondered about Iraqification - training the Iraqis to look after their own, starting with the military now twiddling their thumbs. But that would mean reinstalling a whole lot of Ba'athists: not much of a regime change.
The only solution is, surely, allies. When you look at the zero-casualty rate the genuine coalition governing the Balkans has sustained, this sounds a smart idea. But it, too, is fraught with problems. It will be hard to win over the likes of France and Germany without offering them a degree of political control over the country; Bremer would have to share power. That would be a huge loss of face for the Washington hardliners for whom the UN is an expletive. Besides, how many nations will be eager to expose their young men to harm, now that they know a UN flag attracts rather than deters terrorists?
None of these problems is a surprise. An enterprise that was misconceived from the beginning was hardly going to reach a smooth end. Now that it has started, it has to be run differently - with more money, more personnel, more allies and a timetable for free elections. To get all that may require one more thing, which only the American people can provide, 14 months from now: new
Dawn/The Guardian News Service.