The arrival of the American army at the gates of Baghdad heralds a decisive phase of the Iraq war. However it ends, the USs current global ambitions guarantee bitter and prolonged conflict in the Middle East and beyond.
The Iraq war is only two weeks old yet the Iraqi civilian death toll is already in the high hundreds, and Iraqi military losses (while harder to estimate) in the several thousands. The duration of this immediate conflict is yet uncertain, but some of its aspects already suggest that it may inaugurate a much longer conflict lasting for decades.
The war itself was initiated by the United States and Britain without UN endorsement and in the face of opposition stretching far beyond the Middle East to encompass public opinion across most of the world. In these circumstances, a very short war was needed, involving the almost complete collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime.
Instead, the regime survived the initial attacks, resistance in most of the towns and cities has been much greater than the US military commanders expected, and there have been few instances of crowds welcoming the liberators.
Many US strategists had anticipated an immediate collapse of the regime. This did not happen yet they still confidently expected US forces to be on the outskirts of Baghdad and ready for occupation of the city within four or five days.
In the event, some US forces are now close to Baghdad, but the extent of the Iraqi resistance so far means that they will either have to establish large forces close to the city, or else almost immediately fight their way through the city using their overwhelming firepower.
Already, there are signs of a much more aggressive use of area impact munitions and other forms of firepower, with civilian casualties rising rapidly. This situation is born of two requirements the need to gain the initiative because of political pressures, and the inevitable response to the risk of suicide bombings.
A trail of bitterness
The effect across the region, though, is fundamental in its impact. Across the Arab world as a whole, the picture is of an aggressive superpower, aided and abetted by Britain, invading and occupying one of the major Arab states. Furthermore, Iraq may be a 20th century construct, but it represents Islamic and predecessor civilizations dating back many thousands of years.
There remains little affection for Saddam Hussein anywhere in the region, although the Americans are currently achieving the extraordinary feat of making him considerably more popular than he was. Much more significant is the gathering support for Iraq and the Iraqis, based on the firm belief that they are being subjected to a western conquest that will become a long-term subjugation.
Already this is attracting radicals to Iraq; it is also a gift to al-Qaida and its associates. President Mubarak of Egypt, one of the strongest allies of the United States in the region, talked in Suez of the risk of this war giving birth to a hundred bin Ladens.
Unless the regime suddenly collapses, events of the next four weeks will only reinforce the almost visceral opposition to what the Americans and British are now doing.
Following its earlier reversals, the US forces can decide to attack the core leadership of the regime almost at once, using their available troops combined with massive use of weaponry. This could well achieve the objective of regime termination, but the human costs would be enormous; thousands of civilians would die and tens of thousands would be injured.
Instead, they could wait for two to three weeks for reinforcements and then move in, again employing massive firepower which would kill many civilians. In either case, the war could still end within six weeks. A higher level of Iraqi resistance might involve a longer siege of Baghdad and continue through the summer heat.
How this war ends, though, is largely irrelevant in the long term. The important point is that it will leave a trail of bitterness and despair that will last for years and even decades. In part, this will be a legacy of the sheer impact of the bloodshed and destruction, and a near-universal perception across the region that the United States and its Israeli ally are in the business of controlling the Arab world.
The perception here is at least as important as the reality, and in any case there are far too many aspects of the war and its probable aftermath which allow this perception to gain some credibility.
A failure of US intelligence
Whatever Tony Blair may hope for, it is becoming clear that Washingtons initial post-war plan is for the United States to have firm control over the country. The twenty-three ministries will all be headed by Americans, with appointed Iraqi advisers, and the overall head of the state apparatus will be a US General, Jay Garner, who has close links with Israel as well as being president of an arms contracting company that makes missile guidance systems.
There is abundant evidence that Washingtons security neo-conservatives believe it to be absolutely essential for the United States to have effective control of the Gulf. With its massive oil reserves now accounting for nearly 70% of world totals, and most industrial economies increasingly dependent on Gulf oil, controlling the region has become an essential feature of the Republican security paradigm.
This means terminating the Iraqi regime followed by the occupation of the country and the establishment of an acceptable client state secured by a permanent US military presence. It further means deterring Iran from presenting any threats to US security, a process that will be made much easier by control of Iraq.
There seems to be no understanding whatsoever of the effect of this on the region; nor does the US seem to realise that it plays directly into the hands of militant radicals. Instead, there is a naive belief that such a western-dominated order can be sustained, perhaps stemming from apparent past successes in working with local elites.
The US mistake lies in failing to recognise three key trends. The first is the demographic process that has resulted in many tens of millions of young people who are increasingly marginalised from economic participation. This is compounded by the second trend, the effect of secondary and tertiary education on millions of people across the region, giving them a much clearer understanding of what is happening. Such people all too frequently see their ruling elites as benefiting at their expense as well as being inextricably linked with the US and other western states. The third trend is the existence of new channels of communication like al-Jazeera that present the realities in the Middle East in a way that has not hitherto existed.
The end result is a bitterness that will express itself in many different ways in the coming years, not least in the development of further radical and extreme social movements such as al-Qaida. Even in Iraq itself, there may be sustained resistance to US dominance, but this will be marginal compared with the reaction across the region.
A vital choice
Gulf oil will be the dominant energy source for the world for upwards of thirty years. If the US neo-conservatives establish a paradigm of clear-cut western control of the region, with Iraq at its centre, then the stage is set for a conflict that lasts just as long.
The Iraq war may be over within three months or it may take longer; in either case, it has the potential to signal the development of a much more sustained conflict. Whether this occurs depends in turn on a key variable: the endurance and success of the Bush administrations conception of international security, the essential requirement for a New American Century.
If this conception does succeed, a thirty-year war is in prospect. If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped. What happens in Iraq in the next few months may determine which route is taken.