Ten years on, let's declare our victory over Iraq and lift the sanctions

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He has outlasted George Bush, the man who conquered him. He has outlasted Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and is about to see off Bill Clinton. Step forward Saddam Hussein, the man who 10 years ago today invaded Kuwait and brought upon himself the most spectacular, swift and crushing military defeat suffered by a single country in modern times.

He has outlasted George Bush, the man who conquered him. He has outlasted Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and is about to see off Bill Clinton. Step forward Saddam Hussein, the man who 10 years ago today invaded Kuwait and brought upon himself the most spectacular, swift and crushing military defeat suffered by a single country in modern times.

Since then, of course, seen from whichever of his presidential palaces or military bunkers he currently inhabits, the picture has immeasurably improved. The international coalition which routed him has long since dissolved. The "Big Five" members of the United Nations security council which determines his fate are hopelessly divided. The UN sanctions imposed in August 1990 have grown increasingly leaky; as the new millennium opens, Saddam seems more securely in power than ever.

Since the departure of the last UN inspection team, he has had almost two uninterrupted years to catch up on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons business, disturbed only by a low-level British and US air campaign, the "forgotten war" which started in December 1998 and continues to this day.

"We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people," claims the Foreign Office when pressed on the sanctions and the bombing strikes which, Baghdad claims, have killed 300 civilians. In fact, ordinary Iraqis are the undisputed victims of this unfinished war and the sanctions that have reduced a sophisticated Arab nation to an economy driven by barter, corruption and despair. Soaring infant and child mortality and desperate shortages of medicines testify to the failure of the UN's food-for-oil programme, designed to bypass Saddam's regime and meet Iraq's humanitarian needs.

Iraq and now Yugoslavia prove once again that punitive sanctions almost never work. Slobodan Milosevic is merely following Saddam's path - using sanctions and the rationing they cause to keep key supporters sweet by allowing them access to scarce goods, and to play the nationalist card by blaming the misery of the rest of the population on persecution by wicked foreigners such as ourselves.

Such are the unintended consequences of British and American policy on Iraq. Could things have been different? Certainly, if the United States had exercised more effective preventative diplomacy in the weeks before the invasion of Kuwait, warning Saddam that any violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty would be met by force. Perhaps, if President Bush had extended the 100-hour ground war a little longer, to destroy the bulk of Saddam's forces.

But a direct onslaught on Baghdad would have shattered the Bush coalition on the spot and led to further destabilisation, either by turning Iraq into an unwilling US protectorate in the heart of the Arab world or by permitting Iran to fill the vacuum. The dirty truth is that today's stalemate suits everyone - except, of course, ordinary Iraqis. From the viewpoint of the United States, Britain, Turkey and Israel, and of many countries in the region, Saddam is bad news, but the disintegration of Iraq would be far worse.

If there were an easy answer to this conundrum, it would have long since been found. But current Anglo-American policy is at a dead end. We have boxed ourselves into a position where the slightest climbdown would look like surrender. The least bad policy now, and certainly the one which would most swiftly improve the lot of the Iraqi people, would be to declare victory and move on.

We should lower to virtual invisibility the bar that Iraq must jump in order to satisfy the incoming UN weapons inspectors and secure the lifting of sanctions. Instead, we should pursue the containment, and ideally the downfall, of Saddam by other means. A defiant Saddam will undoubtedly claim a famous victory. But a man who has so thrived on failure may just find that success is his undoing.

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