Forget the weapons of mass destruction, we were still right to invade Iraq

Not even the most sceptical reporters now claim that Iraqis wanted Saddam to prevail or the invasion to be called off

This is a bleak moment for defenders of the latest Gulf War. Despite Tony Blair's eloquent performance before the select committees this week, many people who backed the liberation of Iraq are now disheartened. It seems that the dancing crowds have transmuted horribly into snarling mobs. The promised weapons of mass destruction are no more apparent than the Macavity-like Osama and Saddam. Every now and then, as I flick from CNN to al-Jazeera to see the same chaotic scenes from Iraq, there are painful flickers of doubt. Did I defend a hideous colonial expedition? Were the humanitarian arguments put so persuasively by the Prime Minister simply naive dreams? Is Iraq turning into Lebanon?

Let me tell you why these doubts are always defeated in my mind. The WMD arguments always seemed to me unpersuasive. I never thought Blair was lying, and I still don't, but it always seemed that in truth intelligence is a matter of probabilities. It is extremely rare that a political leader can get 100 per cent certainty from intelligence: John Kennedy, who had photographs of Russian missiles in Cuba, is the only example I can think of. Most of the time, it is impressionistic: a source here, a suspicious photo there, a dodgy attempt to buy dual-use materials, all of which could be wrong or innocent, but, if there seems to be a pattern... What Blair had, it now seems, is intelligence that suggested there was a 30-60 per cent chance of Saddam having WMD. There was no certainty, nor could there be, but there was a strong possibility.

This alone would not be a just cause for war. But when combined with Saddam's vile, genocidal acts - which for me were reason enough for regime change on their own, even if there was not a drop of anthrax in Iraq - Blair became persuaded. One argument that weighed on him is, I think, still unanswerable. The clearest and most compelling argument for the war was simply that the Iraqi people wanted it to happen. It was the only way they could see to end the tyranny of Saddam. There was plenty of evidence that this was the case before the war. It has been proved beyond doubt over the past three months. Several independent opinion polls have been conducted in Iraq since the war: they have all found that, while a million people marched in London, the Iraqis by a clear majority wanted the American and British invasion to go ahead. Not even the most sceptical reporters now claim that many Iraqis were longing for Saddam to prevail or for the invasion to be called off.

If you opposed the war, you cannot deny now that you opposed the will of the Iraqi people. You might think you know better than Iraqis what is good for them. That is a respectable position - I think I know better than the Americans about what is good for them when it comes to capital punishment, for example - but you have to be honest.

The support offered by Iraqis - and by those offering the humanitarian arguments for war - had an important clause. The arguments for regime change were absolutely dependent on the faith that what came after the Baath tyranny would be better than Saddam. We backed the war because we did not believe that things would get even worse for Iraqis. If Iraq descends into civil war or another Saddamesque tyranny, or even if it remains simply as bad as under Saddam, then the arguments we offered will have been lethally flawed.

So the morality of the war hinges, for me, on a simple question: is Iraq better or worse off now than under Saddam? Well, for a start, not a single person in Iraq today is being fed feet-first into a shredder. This sounds so ridiculous and improbable that you might suspect it is simplistic war propaganda, like the mythical German bayonetting of babies in the First World War; but we now have unimpeachable evidence that it was happening as a matter of course under Saddam to dissidents and their families. We know that rape was being used as a form of punishment by Saddam: that is not happening today.

Iraqis are now digging up what appears to be 300,000 people rotting in mass graves in Iraqi soil; no bodies are being tossed into mass graves in Iraq today. We know that 500,000 people, most of them children, died because of the horrific way Saddam implemented the UN sanctions programme. In northern Iraq, which was under exactly the same sanctions, child mortality actually improved - proof that Saddam, not the UN programme itself, was responsible. Sanctions and Saddam are now gone; today, not a single child will die as a result of the regime's handling of them. If this sounds emotional, then that is because the discussion of torture, rape and child murder should be emotional; I am sick of anti-war people claiming a monopoly on compassion.

On any balance sheet of whether Iraq is better off, these are strong points on the "yes" side. What about the downside? Undoubtedly, there has been a greater degree of chaos than anyone anticipated. When Saddam's forces were driven out of northern Iraq in 1991, a civilian police force was quickly formed by the Kurds themselves. It now seems that they had retained a degree of internal coherence and capacity for organisation that was missing in the rest of Iraq. The people of, for example, Baghdad had been so infantilised by the regime - so terrified for decades of taking any independent action - that it took them time to regain the knack. (Within a few weeks, they were creating a glorious array of political parties and newspapers, something they could have never dreamed of under Saddam; but a few weeks is all it takes for looting to do terrible damage).

Yet much of this chaos is caused not by incompetence on the part of the Allies, but by deliberate sabotage by Saddam and his cronies. When I was in Iraq last September, Saddam released all Iraq's prisoners (except, of course, the "political" prisoners who might be a risk to him. They continued to be tortured, butchered and shot). Think about that: every psycho, armed robber, rapist, murderer and thief was set free, and almost none re-arrested. And we are surprised that there is now chaos? How could any occupying power on earth be expected to bring all this under control in three months?

There is considerable evidence that Baath recidivists are deliberately sabotaging reconstruction efforts. They are, as ever, harming the very people they claim to be helping: they blow up the electricity lines, for example, just after specialists restore them. These are the main reasons for the failure in the reconstruction so far.

Remember the alternative to the current situation was not some imaginary Iraq living in peace and harmony: it was a continuation of rule by Saddam and his psychotic sons, by the plastic shredder and the mass grave. Yes, there are problems today, and if there is considerable degeneration - which is a real danger - then the war will turn out to have been unjustifiable. But for today, I remain proud that the Government of my country helped to overthrow one of the most vile regimes on Earth.