What a difference a year makes

Do you remember WMD, Clare Short, the hunt for Saddam, and George Bush proclaiming the 'historic opportunity' for peace?
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Tony Blair faced down increasingly strident calls for his resignation over a prison abuse scandal this week, as British and American forces stepped up their war against Islamic militias in Iraq.

Tony Blair faced down increasingly strident calls for his resignation over a prison abuse scandal this week, as British and American forces stepped up their war against Islamic militias in Iraq.

The occupying forces are attempting to crush an increasingly bloody revolt from the Shia militias who are redefining the balance of power in Iraq.

They have been taunted by the gruesome beheading of Nick Berg, an American businessman. According to his al-Qa'ida executioners, he was killed as a protest against the Iraqi prison scandal that has shaken the Blair and Bush administrations to the core.

How different from the scene one year ago, when America and Britain declared themselves the liberators of the Iraqi people. Now, with public opinion around the world and inside Iraq turning against the occupation, and with casualties rising sharply, the allies are struggling to crush a new enemy as they prepare to hand back power to the Iraqis.

In May last year, as now, the focus was on the installation of a viable government. But the Bush administration's initial attempts to impose American rule were doomed, even in conditions which seemed like a picnic compared to the current security situation.

It became clear days after President Bush triumphantly announced the end of hostilities on 1 May 2003 that his planners had failed to devote as much attention to post-war scenarios as they had to the overthrow of the Iraqi tyrant. As looting and lawlessness spread, the man put in charge of overseeing the post-war effort, General Jay Garner, was summarily recalled. Paul Bremer, chosen by President Bush for his expertise in counter-terrorism, was dispatched to pick up the pieces.

The Bush administration was forced, once again, to turn to the hated UN as the Americans sought to legitimise the occupation. But it emerged that the UN would only be handed an advisory role, far from the "vital role" promised by George Bush and Tony Blair. Clare Short stormed out of government, accusing Mr Blair of reneging on his promise to secure a UN-led process that would enable the Iraqis to regain control of their country. Mr Blair, she said, was "in danger of destroying his legacy as he becomes increasingly obsessed by his place in history".

Now, Mr Blair looks vulnerable, amid the mounting military and civilian casualties and the controversy over prisoner abuse in Iraq.

Once again, the UN is in the frame, after the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council proved that it had no legitimacy, power or competence. A new UN resolution is under discussion, providing for elections at the beginning of next year. But how will Iraqis, who have never engaged in "normal" party politics, be able to fill the political vacuum, even if security conditions allow polling to go ahead?

"They don't want the coalition to stay, but they are afraid of us leaving," a British official said.

The old arguments have fallen away, as the new security threat to the stability of Iraq has grown. One year ago, on 14 May 2003, Jack Straw caused a storm when he minimised the importance of finding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, undermining the government's central argument for the invasion. Today, nobody expects Charles Duelfer, the American weapons expert leading the hunt for Saddam's WMD, to come up with any weapons.

A year ago, Mr Blair was hailing the discovery of a mass grave containing up to 3,000 bodies as proof of "just how brutal, tyrannical and appalling that regime was and what a blessing it is for the Iraqi people and for humankind that he has gone from power". Today, it is the British Government which is fighting off accusations that it has killed Iraqi civilians.

What a difference a year makes. In May 2003, the occupying powers were attempting to restore basic humanitarian needs, an infrastructure and a government to the long-suffering Iraqi people. In the light of this week's events, it is difficult to see how conditions can be met for the reconstruction to continue, and for President Bush's dream of an orderly progression to democracy to be realised.