Hard News by Russell Brown

Next, please

There can be few sights more powerfully symbolic than the toppling of a dictator's statue. And Saddam Hussein's regime has certainly allowed for that scene to be played out over and over, as his ubiquitous images are torn down by his former subjects.

But the disappearance of a 30-year regime leaves a huge vacuum. The question is now, as everyone is saying, what happens next. How well and how quickly can the civil infrastructure be restored? What happens when the coalition forces make the necessary transition from warfare to policing? What will the hundreds of thousands of former soldiers, police and Baath party members do? What will it take to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity? Will any banned weapons actually be found? Will the frightening rush away from liberalism in the Islamic world turn the other way now that the killing is almost over? Will it be a flowering of democracy or another Lebanon? How many people died anyway?

There will, of course, be a challenge for everyone who opposed war. Who, after all, would deny these people relief from the dull, endless grind of their authoritarian regime? It was always thus.

I never wrote off the final sanction of war, if all other avenues had been exhausted, but over the past three weeks, I have wondered even about that. War is a barbaric, arbitrary way of solving problems, if easier to justify when the nominated target is clearly evil. I find the conservative idea that it is part of the human condition and will always be with us depressing and, in its way, defeatist.

In counting the cost and weighing the gains, we ought to acknowledge some serious strikes on our own traditions of truth and transparency, and on the rules-based world that has kept us relatively prosperous and peaceful.

America's cluster-bomb diplomacy has caused some substantial collateral damage. Hopefully the grudge-bearing will stop, and idiot Congressmen will forget about their trade wars with France, Germany, Mexico and Canada. Helen Clark's apology for unwisely stating the eveident truth - that Iraq would not have been attacked under a Gore presidency - will be accepted and filed away. Hell, maybe someone will threaten the repressive Stalinist regime in "allied" Uzbekistan with forcible democracy, instead of feeding it economic lollies and inviting its leader to the White House.

Key determinants will be the shape of any new Iraqi government, progress towards justice in the occupied territories - and this would have been a different war if that had been achieved first - and whether the White House hawks are happy now or already planning their next push on Iran or Syria.

Regarding the first, I can't see the ascension of Ahmed Chalabi, if it happens, leading anywhere good. What use is an Iraqi leader who can't visit Jordan without being arrested for a $40 million bank fraud? There are, of course, other exiles who offer both competence and integrity, but they are not all friends with Perle and Cheney.

The second looks most unpromising. The Israeli government has been using the cover of war next door to redraw its own map, placing settlers in the Palestinian area of Jerusalem, and staging attacks where it pleases - yesterday an air strike in Gaza killed 12 Palestinians, including several children. An extremist Jewish group apparently attacked a West Bank school, injuring 29 children.

Worst of all, the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz appears to be hinting that the much-vaunted "Road Map" for peace is dead before it starts, and will simply be wrecked by the Sharon government.

The third: who knows? Do you believe Rumsfeld? Or Powell and Blair?

Meanwhile, amid the high-fiving back home, Congressional Republicans are trying to make the odious USA Patriot Act, introduced as a temporary curtailment of civil liberties, permanent. (The Democrats, in a rare burst of courage, have asked for an investigation into the awarding of Iraqi reconstruction contracts to several countries, including, of course, Halliburton, which still pays vice president Dick Cheney.)

The Guardian rounds up the views of the Arab press on events in Iraq, who are either in denial or know something we don't.