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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 08:16 GMT
Iraq: A war-torn year

By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs editor

For months, the United States was far less divided than most other countries about going to war in Iraq.

The old tradition of accepting the president's word and closing ranks at times of crisis helped the Bush administration greatly as the war drew closer.

Bush and Blair
The problems of Iraq are still likely to beleaguer the two leaders
Opinion in most European countries, by contrast, was profoundly hostile to the war; and no big international event had divided people in Britain quite so fiercely in recent times.

Leading ex-generals were as critical of the decision to invade Iraq as well-known peace campaigners.

In the Middle East there was bitter fury and a sense of powerlessness as the war drew closer.

A powerful belief in their cause drove the US president and the UK prime minister on. In private as in public, no one at the top of either government seemed to doubt that Saddam Hussein could genuinely launch devastating attacks on his enemies with weapons of mass destruction.

Afterwards, attention focused on the process of convincing political and public opinion: had the White House and Downing Street been open and truthful about the level of threat which Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed?

One leading American politician later said he had been given the impression at a high-level briefing that Saddam Hussein could now strike at the US East Coast; and there was immense controversy in Britain about a government claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed in 45 minutes.

Swift invasion

Once the invasion began, though, public opinion swung round to support the British forces in the task ahead.

That task was never particularly difficult. The Iraqi air force had ceased to exist, and most Iraqi soldiers simply wanted the safest and best way to surrender.

Even the special units stationed behind the front line troops, with orders to shoot any deserters, were equally anxious to give themselves up.

Saddam Hussein, pictured shaved after his arrest
The coalition has rejoiced in Saddam's capture
Yet although senior figures in the Bush administration had promised that the Iraqis would greet the advancing coalition soldiers as liberators, this was only occasionally true.

Most Iraqis were either scared that the Americans would let Saddam survive, as they did after the first Gulf War, or genuinely resented the presence of Western soldiers on Iraqi soil.

At the same time, the new system of allowing "embedded" reporters with the troops gave remarkable glimpses into a brilliantly planned and executed military campaign, but it also gave the impression that there was more resistance to the American and British advance than there actually was.

Nonetheless, the invasion was certainly not bloodless.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered before they could surrender, while human rights organisations accused the Americans of killing civilians carelessly and unnecessarily.

News organisations remembered the invasion as the one in which the most journalists were killed in the shortest space of time: 20 in all. Of those who died in combat, most were killed by the Americans.

Deaths mount

But it was not until after the war that the real resistance began. One of the strongest advocates of the war, the Deputy Defence Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, was lucky to escape with his life in Baghdad, and the American administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, just managed to escape an ambush.

Aftermath of the fuel tanker explosion, Baghdad, 17 December 2003
More US soldiers have died in post-war Iraq than during the invasion
As the months wore on, more American soldiers died than had been killed during the war itself; though the British were able to report a more stable situation in their zone.

Things got harder and harder for the US and British Governments, particularly since no evidence whatever was found of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

And then, two weeks before Christmas, Saddam himself was tracked down by a superb piece of detection, and surrendered meekly.

This changed the entire character of the American and British strategy, and gave the increasingly embattled George W Bush and Tony Blair real hope that they might have turned the corner.

But with the Hutton Inquiry reporting in the New Year on the circumstances surrounding the death of the UK Government weapons expert Dr David Kelly, and a potentially difficult election campaign facing Mr Bush, the problems created by the invasion of Iraq refuse to go away.

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