It may be years before the US and Britain know what they have unleashed in Iraq

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The morning after the euphoria of the statue-felling should have brought even the most "told you so" of warmongers sharply up against the reality of what the Americans and British have embarked on in Iraq.

The morning after the euphoria of the statue-felling should have brought even the most "told you so" of warmongers sharply up against the reality of what the Americans and British have embarked on in Iraq.

The looting and early signs of the fracturing of Iraq on ethnic and religious lines do not in themselves negate the case for war. It may not be possible to assess that for another 10 years. But they do emphasise the costs and difficulties of turning Iraq from dictatorship to democracy by force – of which the war itself was only a part.

The response yesterday of the Turkish government to the fall of Kirkuk is depressing. Turkey's suspicion of any expression of Kurdish identity has been an undercurrent of this war, and has as much to do with the Turkish parliament's refusal to allow US forces free run of the country as any fellow-feeling with Iraqi Muslims. Turkey did not want Baghdad to be taken, with Kurdish help, from the north, and it does not want Kurdish fighters heading south, expanding Kurdish territory.

Yet Turkey will not be able to suppress the Kurdish issue. One obvious requirement of turning Iraq into a democracy is some kind of federal structure in order to protect the rights of the Kurdish minority in the north and of the Sunni Muslim minority in the rest of the country. That in turn means a greater international recognition of the Kurdish right to self-determination than the existence of the northern "safe haven" for the past 12 years.

This is unwelcome to Turkey, where more than half all Kurds live, because there is no good argument in principle against a unified Kurdish state. The Turks recognise the contradiction between Tony Blair and George Bush's insistence on the integrity of Iraq's present borders while at the same time asserting the rights of the peoples of Iraq to democratic self-determination. But Ankara does not seem sufficiently to understand that its best hope of heading off Kurdish nationalism is to respect the rights of Turkish Kurds.

The collapse of civil order in Iraq poses a more immediate problem. A period of lawlessness and looting in the gap between Saddam Hussein's tyranny and benevolent military rule by the Americans and British may be inevitable, but that does not make it any more comfortable for the families cowering in their homes as gangs of thugs roam the streets.

It should go without saying that establishing order is urgent – so urgent that risks have to be taken by soldiers who are still trying to fight the remnants of Saddam's forces. Aid cannot be distributed unless it is effectively policed; hospitals cannot function unless Iraqi doctors feel able to leave their homes. It is no use army officers saying, as the British have in Basra, that they cannot stop the looting until they have finished fighting the war. There can be no such clear boundaries.

This matters, and not only in the short term; there is a medium-term cost in allowing gangsterism to take hold. The problems in Bosnia and Kosovo show how difficult it is to root out organised crime once it gains a hold. The situation in Kosovo, four years on from the war, has been stabilised, but the local population is culturally homogenous and had a network of its own institutions even under Milosevic.

As was shown by the murder of a Shia leader in Najaf yesterday, Iraqi society is less cohesive to begin with.

None of these problems will ensure the failure of US or British good intentions, or mean that life for most Iraqis will not eventually be better than before. But, please, no triumphalism.

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