A year of war that made the world a more dangerous place

20 March 2004

One year after the United States announced the start of the world's first pre-emptive war with a fearsome bombardment of Baghdad, the results of this ill-advised application of armed force are plain. Iraq is a devastated and divided country, balanced on a knife-edge between a faltering return to self-government and civil war. Nearly 600 Americans, 60 Britons and more than 40 nationals of other countries have been killed. Many times more have been injured. The number of Iraqi dead, military and civilians, runs into thousands. Large numbers of foreign troops and billions of dollars in aid will be needed in Iraq for many years to come.

As we argued forcefully and repeatedly at the time, this was a war that should never have happened. Even at our most pessimistic, however, we underestimated the flimsiness of the pretext and the gravity of the consequences. With the chief UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, we pleaded for the inspectors to be given more time. With the French, Germans and Russians, we demanded a Security Council mandate before any military action. With sceptical back-benchers, we argued that our government had not produced the clear legal justification for war that it needed.

And we drew attention, more times than we care to recall, to the muddled logic that the Government used in its increasingly desperate efforts to persuade a sceptical public that force was the only option. Did Britain join the US in order to eradicate the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? Or was it to liberate Iraqis from an evil dictator? To spread peace and democracy through the region? Because we believed that Saddam Hussein protected al-Qa'ida terrorists? Or was it in the hope of restraining President George Bush's reckless unilateralism?

One year on, it turns out that Iraq had no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction: the inspectors should have been given more time. When the US and Britain defied the majority of the Security Council, they prompted an international schism, which divides Europe and isolates our two countries to this day. There was no evidence, and never had been, of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida - US officials now admit as much - but the occupation of Iraq is already becoming terrorism's best recruiting agent. The removal of Saddam has precipitated no spread of peace or democracy through the region, nor the least whiff of reform. As for American unilateralism, recent polls show the US as diplomatically isolated and as globally unpopular as it was one year ago.

Yes, Saddam and his regime fell at the end of a remarkably short and clinical war that was, in purely military terms, a success. But the abject lack of planning for the "day after" created a security vacuum that left many Iraqis asking whether they were any better off than they had been before. A string of policy errors, which included the dissolution of the Iraqi armed forces, fuelled popular resistance and religious and ethnic rivalries. The complexities of securing a post-Saddam Iraq were the chief reasons why President Bush's father had decided against driving on to Baghdad after allied forces had liberated Kuwait. He was right then; his son and Mr Blair were wrong.

But what has been done, while deeply misguided and regrettable, cannot be undone. If, as this week's poll suggests, a majority of Iraqis is now reconciled to current circumstances, even hopeful of a better future, there may still be a chance that something can be salvaged. The Iraqis must seize the opportunities opened by the removal of Saddam. But the occupying powers have an obligation to provide the necessary conditions. They must redouble their efforts to impose law and order, while restoring reliable supplies of water and electricity. If this requires more funds and more troops, the US and Britain have a duty to dispatch them well before the 30 June return of sovereignty to an Iraqi authority. The 30 June deadline must be met - not to suit George Bush's electoral timetable, but to show that the US and Britain honour their promises and that the occupation is finite.

The UN must return to Iraq, not under US-set conditions, but with a Security Council mandate and genuinely international protection and blessing. Elections must be organised, if possible, ahead of the 2005 schedule. But the watchword must be security: Iraqis must be able to live their daily lives without fear for their safety, or what is their new freedom worth? This is the absolute minimum that the US and Britain owe to Iraqis. Together they committed one of the gravest foreign policy errors that either country has committed for decades: the US since Vietnam; Britain since Suez.

This historic misjudgement has cost Iraqis dear, but not only Iraqis. The Spanish government fell at least in part because of its unpopular decision to support the US. The Polish Prime Minister has expressed retrospective doubts about joining the alliance. But the highest price may yet be extracted from those who launched the whole ill-fated enterprise. George Bush, once cruising to re-election as a "war" president, finds himself fighting for a second term, his 11 September heroics in tatters. Mr Blair's plight is equally grave. Britain has reaped no reward from the Prime Minister's loyalty to Mr Bush, only grief. British companies received no favours in the granting of post-war contracts; four of our citizens are still held in the reprehensible legal limbo of Guantanamo. Most of all, Mr Blair has forfeited perhaps his most prized political asset: the trust of voters in his judgement. He aspired to bring democracy to Iraq, but came perilously close to subverting it at home.

Far from making the world safer, the Iraq war was a catastrophe that has made it more dangerous in every respect. It will account for more lives and many billions more dollars, before it is truly over, and there may be more governments to fall.