Leading article: Iraq is not a mess. It is a disaster

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As the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, the wall of denial around the British government has started to crack. Kim Howells, the Foreign Office minister, admitted yesterday that the country that Tony Blair wants as a beacon, model and catalyst of democracy in the Middle East is "a mess". It is a rather mild, domesticated word for the daily slaughter of incipient civil war.

The discovery last week of the body of Tom Cox, the American hostage kidnapped along with Norman Kember, the Briton, last November, might help to bring the horror home to the American and British people. But it is the raised level of casualties among Iraqis that is the true measure of the "mess" for which George Bush and Mr Blair bear responsibility. According to Iraq Body Count, the average daily death toll rose from 20 in the first year of the occupation to 31 in the second and 36 in the third. We make these points not to rehearse old arguments about the wisdom of the invasion. As Sir Menzies Campbell, the new Liberal Democrat leader, writes on page 39 today, what matters now is that we learn from the mistakes of Iraq. "Coalition strategy on Iraq, both pre- and post-conflict, has followed a flawed pattern: a reliance on force; a belief that ends justify means; and a disregard for the lessons of history." The result is not a "mess", Mr Howells. It is an unforgivable disaster.

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