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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 March 2007, 00:17 GMT
Middle East fears broken Iraq
BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East Editor

There was a time in 2003, between the removal of Saddam Hussein and the start of the insurgency, when you could stroll through Baghdad down to one of the teahouses on the banks of the Tigris without worrying too much about getting kidnapped or blown up.

Scene of car bomb in Baghdad, 20-03-07

For those few months, supporters of the Iraq war generally felt pretty good about the way things had gone.

No weapons of mass destruction had been found, but it was just a matter of time.

Yes, there had been looting and banditry, but it would pass.

It seemed, to the instigators and supporters of the war, that the dream of the American neo-conservatives was coming true.

Iraq was being remade a beacon of democratic values. It would become such a successful friend of the West that all its neighbours would want to copy it.

Watershed year

Of course, it has been clear for some time that the neo-con dreams were delusions. But they should not be forgotten, because they are, after all, a big part of the reason why we all ended up in this mess.

I say "we" because it is going to be very hard for anyone to avoid the consequences of having a broken country and a bloody series of wars at the centre of the world's most strategically important region.

Homeless Iraqi women living in destroyed building in Baghdad
Nearly two million Iraqis have been displaced within their own country
The year 2003 was a watershed in the modern history of the Middle East. The results of the invasion are going to be rumbling around the region for a long time - a generation or more.

Some are already clear. The war has already produced the biggest movement of people in the Middle East since the Palestinian refugee crisis after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

More than a million refugees from Iraq are in Syria, around a million more in Jordan and almost two million have been displaced inside Iraq.

The war between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Iraq terrifies people.

In Saudi Arabia last month a Shia engineer told me how worried his community had been during Ashura, the annual commemoration of the death of their martyr Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed.

"It's simple," he said. "Some of the Sunnis, the extremists, regard us as infidels. We're terribly worried that what's happening in Iraq could happen here."

Shia militiaman in Iraq - file photo
Iraq's neighbours fear a spread of Shia-Sunni conflict
When you travel around the Middle East and ask people about how the war in Iraq has affected them you get a combination of regret, anger and trepidation.

Last week I visited a senior Saudi security official, a general. I asked him whether the invasion by America, Britain and their friends four years ago had made Iraq into a recruiting sergeant for Islamist extremists.

He said it had, and explained.

"It inspires these people," he said. "Some of them think it is their duty to go and perform jihad in Iraq. They think they are supporting the Muslims in Iraq and actually protecting the Islamic civilisation and culture in Iraq."

He denied, by the way, that Saudi Arabia's tolerance of some religious extremists was also making matters worse.

'Sound of freedom'

Saddam Hussein was a never a good neighbour, but after his armies were expelled from Kuwait in 1991 he was contained.

The conservative, mainly elderly Sunni royalty who run the Arab Gulf like predictability. What is happening in Iraq now is not at all predictable, and that makes them nervous.

At the biggest arms fair in the Middle East, which was held in Abu Dhabi last month, the best-selling items were weapons and equipment for border security and counter-insurgency.

American aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower - file photo
Two US aircraft carriers are in waters near the Middle East
And what about the Americans?

Some of them still seem to be believers in the dead dreams of four years ago.

On the flight deck of the enormous US aircraft carrier the USS Eisenhower in the Gulf this week, warplanes were being shot out of the steam catapults on the flight deck with engines that roared and screamed so loudly you felt it in your sinuses, teeth and jawbone.

"Listen to it," one of the officers told me when the warplanes were launched and streaking up the Gulf to Iraq.

"It is the sound of freedom."

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