In his last hours as US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer decided to tighten up some of the laws that his occupation authority had placed across the land of Iraq.
He drafted a new piece of legislation forbidding Iraqi motorists to drive with only one hand on the wheel. Another document solemnly announced that it would henceforth be a crime for Iraqis to sound their car horns except in an emergency. That same day, three American soldiers were torn apart by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad, one of more than 60 attacks on US forces over the weekend. And all the while, Mr Bremer was worrying about the standards of Iraqi driving.
It would be difficult to find a more preposterous - and chilling - symbol of Mr Bremer's failures, his hopeless inability to understand the nature of the débâcle that he and his hopeless occupation authority have brought about. It's not that the old "Coalition Provisional Authority" - now transmogrified into the 3,000-strong US embassy - was out of touch. It didn't even live on Planet Earth. Mr Bremer's last starring moment came when he departed Baghdad on a US military aircraft, with two US-paid mercenaries - rifles pointed menacingly at camera crews and walking backwards - protecting him until the cabin door closed. And Mr Bremer, remember, was appointed to his job because he was an "anti-terrorist" expert.
Most of the American CPA men who have cleared out of Baghdad are doing what we always suspected they would do when they had finished trying to put a US ideological brand name on "new" Iraq; they have headed off to Washington to work for the Bush election campaign. But those left behind in the "international zone" - those we have to pretend are no longer an occupation authority - make no secret of their despair. "The ideology is gone. The ambitions are gone. We've no aims left," one of them said last week. "We're living from one day to the next. All we're trying to do now - our only goal - is to keep the lid on until January 2005 [when the first Iraqi elections are supposed to be held]. That's our only aim - get past the elections - and then get the hell out."
The production of Saddam Hussein in a Baghdad "court" last week - he was actually sitting in one of his former palaces - was therefore the occupiers' last card. After this, there is going to be no more "good news" in Iraq, no more devices, no more tricks, no more captures to brighten our eyes before the November elections in the US. Yet even the court melodrama was symptomatic of how little power the West is prepared to cede to an Iraq to which it last week falsely claimed to be handing "full sovereignty".
Americans continue to hold Saddam - in Qatar, not in Iraq - and Americans ran the court in which Saddam appeared. American soldiers in plain clothes were the "civilians" in the court. American officials censored the tapes of the hearing, lied about the judge's wish to record the sound of the trial, and marked the videotapes "cleared by US military"; three US officers later confiscated all the original tapes of the trial. "The last time that happened to me," one of the reporters involved said afterwards, "was when the Iraqi government took my tapes in Basra during the 1991 Gulf War."
But it's not just the crude handling of the start of Saddam's show trial - where he had, of course, no defence counsel. For if he is ever to be given a fair trial in the future, the "muting" of the tapes last week will have set an important precedent. For he can now be "silenced" again - if, for example, he deviates from the script and starts telling the court about his close association with the US rather than his non-existent contacts with al-Qa'ida.
But America's occupation continues in many other ways. Its 146,000 soldiers are still all too much in evidence in Iraq, its tanks guarding the walls of the US "embassy", its armour littered throughout Baghdad, its convoys humming - and sometimes exploding - along the highways outside the city. The "new" and "sovereign" government cannot order it to leave. Mr Bremer's raft of reconstruction contracts to US companies ensures that American firms continue to cream off Iraq's money, described quite accurately by Naomi Klein in The Nation as "multibillion robbery". And Mr Bremer managed to institute a set of laws that the "new" and "sovereign" government is not permitted to change.
One of the most insidious was the re-introduction of Saddam's 1984 law banning all strikes. This piece of folly was intended to muzzle the so-called Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions. Yet the trade unions are among the few secular groups in Iraq opposing religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism. A strong trade union movement could provide a vital base of political and democratic power in a new Iraq. But no, Mr Bremer preferred to protect big business.
And all the while, the power of the mercenaries has been growing. Blackwater's thugs with guns now push and punch Iraqis who get in their way: Kurdish journalists twice walked out of a Bremer press conference because of their mistreatment by these men. Baghdad is alive with mysterious Westerners draped with hardware, shouting and abusing Iraqis in the street, drinking heavily in the city's poorly defended hotels. They have become, for ordinary Iraqis, the image of everything that is wrong with the West. We like to call them "contractors", but there is a disturbing increase in reports that mercenaries are shooting down innocent Iraqis with total impunity. US military and diplomatic officials have now set an 80/20 ration target for "security" details - 80 Iraqi mercenaries for every 20 Western mercenaries.
And even if President Bush can forget it, the Abu Ghraib scandal burns on in a country where the filth and nudity and humiliation inflicted by US soldiers will take a generation to erase from the memory. One leftist group in Baghdad now claims that several women, allegedly raped by Iraqi policemen at the jail while Americans watched, have been murdered by their families for their "dishonour".
Large areas of the country are now effectively outside any government control - even America's. Fallujah is a virtual people's republic and lynch law is occurring even in Baghdad. The so-called "Mehdi Army" of Muqtada al-Sadr publicly executed a 20-year-old man in the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City last month for "collaboration" with the Americans. Understandably, few journalists dare to travel outside Baghdad - much to the pleasure of the US military. "They killed all those poor people at the wedding party near the Syrian border and our military sources told us there'd been a fuck-up," an American correspondent complained last week. "Then [Brigadier General Mark] Kimmitt says that all the dead were terrorists and he knows we can't go and prove he's wrong."
Iyad Allawi, the new Prime Minister, we must recall, was a CIA man, an MI6 man and a former Baathist. Indeed, he boasted to journalists that he had taken money from 14 intelligence agencies while he was in exile. However "free" Mr Allawi thinks Iraq is, he will not turn against his American protectors - nor against the glowering figure of John Negroponte, the new US ambassador of Honduras fame.
Ironically, the only real hope for the new government would be to do what a majority of its people say they want: to tell the Americans to leave. This, of course, Mr Allawi cannot do. His "sovereign" government needs those American troops to protect it from the people who don't want the American troops in Iraq.
And so we boil our way on to those January 2005 elections, the lid dangerously lifting from time to time to horrify us with little glimpses of the future. Many Iraqis believe that there will be a new dictator, a "democratically minded strongman" in the creepy expression of American neo-conservative Daniel Pipes, to bring about the security that we have failed to give them.
For after the elections, if indeed they are held, we shall self-righteously claim we can no longer be blamed for anything that goes wrong in Iraq. We liberated the Iraqis from Saddam, we shall say. We gave them "democracy" - and look what a mess they made of it.