Leading article: Denial and delusion in the face of mass slaughter

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The Independent Online

While the attention of the world is, understandably, focused on events in Lebanon, we should not forget that the numbers killed in that particular Middle Eastern crisis are negligible when compared with the carnage taking place only a few hundred miles away in Iraq. As we report today, the death toll there is reaching truly nightmarish proportions. There were 5,818 violent deaths in May and June alone. A massacre is taking place almost every day. And there is no sign that the killing is about to end.

It is now beyond doubt that a state of civil war exists in the central regions of the country. Sectarian "cleansing" is advanced, as Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods and towns band together for protection, and minorities are driven out by the activities of death squads. It is small wonder that this murderous atmosphere has prompted almost a million Iraqis to flee the country in the past three years.

The former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, famously warned President Bush before the American-led invasion of Iraq: "You break it, you own it". It seems not. Though the country is breaking apart, the foreign military occupation is doing nothing to assert ownership rights. American and British forces are unable to stem the bloodshed. When they raise their head above the parapets of their fortified bunkers, they merely become targets themselves. On Sunday, Corporal John Johnston Cosby became the 114th British soldier to die in Iraq. More than 2,000 US soldiers have been killed and many more gravely injured since President Bush's "mission accomplished" moment on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.

In any case, the US and British governments are now desperate to make it clear that authority in Iraq lies not with them, but with the new "unity" Iraqi government formed two months ago. This is hardly reassuring for the Iraqi people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration and his much-vaunted security crackdown have failed to reduce the level of killing. Nor has the assassination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi harmed insurgent operations. If anything, they have increased since the insurgent leader met his violent end.

It is worth stepping back, at this particularly bloody point in Iraq's recent history, to remark on how far removed this is from the vision we were confidently offered by our leaders three years ago. We were told that Iraq, after the removal of Saddam Hussein, would be transformed into a beacon of democracy for the Middle East. British and American forces would be welcomed as liberators and, after a brief period of reconstruction work, would soon be on their way home. Now Iraq resembles nothing more than a charnel house, the wider Middle East is in turmoil and there is no sign of our troops returning.

But our leaders remain in denial. This week the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, claimed that the situation in Lebanon has nothing to do with the conflagration in Iraq. She may care to study the transcript of Tony Blair's tête-à-tête with President Bush at the G8 summit. She will find that even the Prime Minister recognises a link, at least in private. But the greatest falsehood of all is that, as Ms Beckett put it, "many things are improving" in Iraq.

Things are not improving. The US-led intervention in Iraq has directly created a disaster that now stands comparison with anything seen in this benighted region for decades. And every elected politician who supported this invasion, in spite of all the warnings, must never be allowed to shake off their responsibility for the catastrophe that has unfolded.