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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 13:27 GMT
Regime change brings the unexpected

By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor, in Baghdad

In 2002, five months before American and British forces invaded Iraq, I interviewed one of the chief American architects of the strategy of regime change. He gave me a long list of the benefits he expected from it.

Fighters in Falluja
Veterans of the conflict in cities like Falluja could seek new pastures

The ripple effects would affect the entire region, he said. Authoritarian governments would crumble and be replaced by democracies.

"It happened in Eastern Europe," said my interviewee - "why not in the Mid-East?"

When I pointed out the differences, he accused me of suggesting that Arabs were somehow inferior to Europeans.

Nowadays, those in Washington who urged President Bush to invade Iraq are heavily on the defensive.

This particular man won't speak publicly about the subject any more, even to defend it.

Ripples of violence

Earlier this year I remembered him when it seemed as though there might, after all, be a ripple effect from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Big demonstrations in Lebanon demanded the withdrawal of Syria's occupation forces, and they duly left.

Now Syria's own government looks insecure, as the accusations of its involvement in the murder campaign in Lebanon grow stronger.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are at least going through the motions of having freer elections.

But none of this is anything remotely like the Middle Eastern equivalent of Eastern Europe's 1989.

Collapse of the Berlin wall, 1989
The collapse of the Berlin wall was a catalyst for change in Europe

Opinion throughout the Muslim world is still deeply offended by the way the Americans and British marched into Iraq without serious international support.

What has rippled out instead has been radical Islamic violence.

Jordan has suffered from it and so, to a lesser extent, has Syria.

At some stage the battle-hardened veterans of Ramadi and Falluja will move elsewhere, just as they did from Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Now there are many more of them, and they have greater popular support.

One country, though, has benefited greatly from the US-led invasion.

Iran, increasingly radical, now knows that the United States lacks both the military strength and the political will to attack it.

And the new, democratic, predominantly Shia Iraq has become its closest ally.

None of this is what my interviewee in Washington expected back in 2002.

Best way out

Yet there is one important benefit. It was best summed up for me by an influential political figure here, an Iraqi Shia who was previously in exile in the West.

The best moment of his life, he says, was when he saw Saddam walking into court to stand trial for the crimes of his regime.

US marines approach an Iraqi man
Many Iraqis criticise the conduct of US troops in their country

Yet he is certainly not pro-American. "Their soldiers treat us like inferior beings, they shoot at our cars, they scream at us, and then they kill us because we don't understand what they say."

So was it good or bad that they had come here? "Both," he answers lamely, and looks away.

All Iraqis can do is to start from the here and now, regardless of how they got there.

They have been given the chance to elect a proper democratic government. And this election will be less divisive and damaging than the last one in January.

Already, Iraqi politicians seem to feel that the US is increasingly irrelevant.

It is not what President Bush and his advisers intended when they came here. But it may be the best way out now.

Do you agree with John Simpson's views? What are your thoughts on the Iraq poll? Send us your comments.


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