Leading article: A dangerous legacy, both at home and abroad

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On the third anniversary of the day US and British forces began to advance on Baghdad, we can see more clearly than ever that the invasion of Iraq has been an unqualified disaster. We were led to believe by the architects of this invasion that Iraq would, by now, be a stable, representative democracy; a "beacon" of liberty to the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East. The reality could not be more different. Iraq has become a bloodbath, with little prospect of release from the furies of sectarian violence.

Yesterday, the former Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, admitted that his country is in a state of civil war; something that has been obvious to all but the most blinkered of international observers for some weeks now. The Sunni insurgency is unrelenting. Horrific car bombings and assassinations occur almost daily. Meanwhile, Shia death squads are stepping up their campaign of kidnapping, torture and executions against Sunnis. Since the desecration of the Samarra shrine last month, mixed Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods are being torn apart in sectarian cleansing. The death toll since the invasion runs into tens of thousands.

Despite two elections and a referendum in Iraq, the writ of the Iraqi government runs little further than Baghdad's Green Zone. Most units of the army and police force are ineffective and undermanned. Those that are halfway competent have been infiltrated by Shia militants. Three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein there is still no regular electricity or adequate sewage disposal. Water supplies are still unreliable.

As for the occupying forces, they are no longer in a position to affect events on the ground. The US military manoeuvres against insurgents over the weekend were a display of force rather than a serious attempt to take on the insurgents. As a result of indiscriminately heavy-handed tactics and scandals such as Abu Ghraib, the US army has lost any goodwill they might have enjoyed in the immediate wake of the invasion. British forces, the second largest troop contingent in Iraq, are largely confined to barracks in the south, distrusted by the local population after their own abuse scandals. The battle for hearts and minds was lost long ago. Military commanders are now simply treading water until withdrawal.

The invasion has left a poisonous domestic legacy for the leaders responsible for this folly. There is a profound lack of trust towards the governments that took their nations to war. President Bush's domestic approval ratings are at a new low. Meanwhile, Tony Blair is close to being a political spent force in this country as a result of his role in the Iraq débâcle. The outright lies about Saddam's weapons capability peddled in the run-up to the invasion have not been forgotten. And the arrogance and contempt for international law displayed by Britain and America in the rush to war still rankles.

The legacy of Iraq in the wider world has been equally toxic. Anger towards the US and Britain has been stoked across the Muslim world. The war has been a recruiting sergeant for Islamist terror organisations. A new confrontation with Iran is looming over the intention of Iraq's neighbour to develop a nuclear capability. Yet the US's diplomatic leverage in this dispute is sorely diminished. Thanks to Iraq, America is now confirmed in the eyes of the world as an aggressor power.

And who can now say, in all conscience, that even the most basic objective of this invasion has been achieved? We were told that Saddam represented a grave threat to international security that simply could not be ignored. Yet because of this military adventure, the world is now a much less safe place. This will be the verdict of history, God or any other power those responsible for this calamity care to invoke.

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