It was in a Kerbala market square in September 2002 that the justice of the war in Iraq first settled on me. It was an unexpected and embarrassing sensation because, like every other British person that autumn not on the payroll of Halliburton, I had been convinced that George Bush was about to launch a disgusting assault on a country dreading American bombs.
But I could not ignore what I saw. Not the fear that seized - occupied - the bodies of ordinary Iraqis if you tried to discuss politics, nor the messages ordinary Iraqis were trying to send. If you were alone - although you never really felt alone in Saddam's Iraq - many would offer the least subtle signals they dared. They would pointedly praise British democracy, then talk about their hopes for the future and ask when you thought the war would begin.
When I returned, confused and uncomfortable with feeling support for US bombing programmes, I tracked down the Iraqi groups in London. Exiles sent running for their lives from Saddam made up one quarter of the Iraqi population. Almost all exiles gave the same message: Yes, our families trapped in Iraq want this war to proceed. No, they don't have any illusions about US power - they remember who armed and funded Saddam - but without this war, they certainly face life imprisonment with no chance of parole.
Except at the very height of the war - when I forced myself to look at the pictures of slaughtered Iraqi children on the internet and asked myself, should I be cheering this?- I have had few doubts. Yes, I felt a low sense of horror when I saw the Americans imposing on Iraq the same IMF neoliberalism they have catastrophically forced on Latin America and Russia. This is a form of capitalism far, far more extreme and destructive than domestic US market forces. So I gave as much cash as I could to the new, free Iraqi trade unions to try - pathetically - to counterbalance this. (You can donate at www.iraqitradeunions.org; spread the word.) I tried to remind myself that if the war hadn't happened, Iraqi trade unionists would still be tortured and burned today.
But even despite America's forced market fundamentalism, nothing shook my faith that this war, whatever its motives, produced a net good. Until, that is, one fetid moment last Thursday morning. I woke up to angry Iraqis on BBC News 24. It was a depressingly familiar scene, but then I spotted something stupidly disturbing. They were screaming and shooting in that same Kerbala market square, the one where I sat a year and a half ago. All the accumulated doubts of the past year hit me like a tidal wave.
That night, sullen, I went to visit my friends from the Iraqi Prospect Organisation - a group of young Iraqis campaigning for democracy in their homeland - and, over a melancholic pizza, confessed my doubts.
Sama Hadad, a clever, feisty 23-year-old Iraqi, looked like she had experienced these fears too. "But you have to remember that defending the invasion doesn't mean defending everything the Americans have done since. Some of it has been stupid - like an ABC of how to create extremists. Their behaviour in Fallujah over the past week has been wildly provocative and wrong. But you keep going back to the facts."
But what are the facts? The Human Rights Centre (HRC) in Kadhimiya has been set up by Iraqis themselves from the ashes of Baathism. They have been going methodically through the massive - and previously unexplored - archives left by the regime, which document every killing in cold bureaucracy-speak. The HRC have found that if the invasion had not happened, Saddam would have killed 70,000 people in the past year. Not sanctions: Saddam's tyranny alone.
"Even once you factor in the war and everybody who has died since, it's not as many people as that," Sama explains. "So this war has indisputably saved lives over the past year. Saddam's victims might not have been appearing on your TV screens, but they would be just as dead."
More facts: the opinion polls. Some people understandably complain that Iraqis might not be speaking candidly to pollsters, because they are afraid and living under occupation. If you look at the usually very critical answers they give, that doesn't stand up. In the recent BBC poll (hardly a pro-war source), fewer than 10 per cent said they had confidence in the occupying forces, for example, and 41 per cent admitted they found the invasion humiliating. These are not the answers of a terrified people censoring themselves.
So we can trust the same polls when - among many legitimate criticisms of the coalition - they also find that 56 per cent of Iraqis say their lives are better than before the war. Only 15 per cent want the coalition troops to leave immediately. Remember that the "End the Occupation Now" campaigners have just 15 per cent of Iraqis on their side. The anti-war campaigners must confront the fact that most Iraqis feel their lives are better now. I was beginning to perk up as we went through these facts. Maybe we were not wrong after all.
Ahmed Shames chips in. He has just returned from Baghdad. He went to meet many of the young men who have been rising up as part of Muqtada Sadr's militia over the past week, and achieved a degree of access that even the best Western journalists find difficult. "They do not have some big, developed political agenda," he explains. "Their anger is not ideological anger," he continues. "It's pragmatic. It's about electricity and jobs and water. They don't believe they are being represented, and out in the slums - unlike in the rest of the country - their lives aren't getting much better.
"It's still possible to win them round by transferring authority to Iraqis, giving them representation and improving the economy," he continues. "This isn't some grand demonstration of tribalism or proof that Iraqis don't want the democratic transition laid out in the constitution. It's a sign that they are frustrated at the cack-handed American occupation and want them to get on with the transition."
So Tony Blair - rather than George Bush - is right on this one. In Washington on Thursday, Blair will argue that inflating Sadr into an iconic monster - and arresting or killing him - will only make matters worse. Most British Iraqis I've spoken to see him as the Kevin the Teenager of Iraqi politics. "He's angry and pissed off and thinks it all unfair," Sama says. "He's not Bin Laden. However he is dealt with - and he's not the massive threat Bush imagines - it must be by an independent Iraqi government after a swift handover. Anything else will turn it into a pride issue, and will make Sadr much more popular with ordinary Iraqis than he is right now."
If this was Vietnam - a country alternately incinerated and poisoned by the Americans - I would want the troops out. If this was occupied Palestine - a country reduced to sub-Saharan poverty by a cruel and futile Israeli occupation - I would want the troops out. Iraq is not Vietnam and it is not Palestine. After my week of wobbling, I have come to the conclusion that the only decent course is to keep supporting the clear majority of Iraqis: against Saddam, against Sadr and against killing Sadr, and against immediate troop withdrawal. And we must back the Iraqis in the biggest demand of all: a transition to real, full Iraqi democracy - and fast.Reuse content