This pyrrhic victory on the Tigris, by David Clark (The Guardian, April 11, 2003)

The outcome was never in doubt. But the aftermath looks ominous

When Henry Kissinger asked Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai whether he thought the French Revolution had been a success, he replied that it was "too early to tell". What was meant half-jokingly then is certainly true of Operation Iraqi Freedom today.

The gloating of those who backed the war has already started, led, as usual, by the Sun (the same Sun that predicted the first war without civilian casualties and now carries pictures of that wretched, limbless child). But it is based, quite knowingly, on a false premise. If there is one thing that united the pro- and anti-war parties, it was the belief that Iraq would be defeated. In the end, our expectations were confounded only to the extent that the stiffest opposition was encountered in the south, whereas Baghdad was entered with comparative ease.

In any case, the squabble over who got it right about the course of the war is largely irrelevant. The more apocalyptic warnings about the battle of Baghdad turned out to be false. But just because some doom-mongers were proved wrong, it does not logically follow that the warmongers have been proved right. Remember, we were not promised regime removal; we were promised regime change, with the assurance that Saddam Hussein would be succeeded by something altogether more benign. This was always going to be the difficult bit.

The jubilant reaction of some Iraqis to the regime's collapse has come as a relief after the very mixed response coalition troops received in the Shia-dominated south. Yet the anecdotal evidence reveals a more disconcerting picture. It is worth noting that the residents of Saddam City were singing the praises of Allah, not George Bush.

B esides, if we recall the British army's deployment to Northern Ireland in 1969 we should also reflect on how quickly the residents of west Belfast switched from making tea for the troops to throwing petrol bombs at them. The timescale in which coalition forces will be deemed to have outstayed their welcome is likely to be significantly shorter than the one the Pentagon has in mind.

Equally worrying has been the willingness of Iraqi troops to continue to fight and die against the most insane odds, even after their command and control structures have been smashed. There is no regime any more, yet the fighting continues. Most of Iraq's forces have not surrendered or been captured, but have simply faded away, taking their weapons. It is possible that there may not even be a definitive end-point to this war and that we are set to witness the sort of protracted low-intensity conflict with which we have become all too familiar.

Those who have promised to transform Iraq into Switzer land-on-the-Euphrates seem to forget that Saddam was a product of his country's violent and bloody past, not its cause. Of all the analogies that have been offered to explain what might lie ahead, it is the example of the Lebanon that must therefore strike greatest fear into the hearts of British and American policy makers. The spate of suicide bombings provides one indication that the coalition's victory might give way to the same explosive cocktail of political factionalism, religious extremism and foreign occupation that resulted in hundreds of American deaths and a hasty withdrawal from Beirut 20 years ago.

The repercussions of this war will not be confined within Iraq's borders. The idea of an international community based on multilateral rules and institutions lies in ruins as the prospect of a world dominated by the hegemonic preferences of a solitary power hoves into view. The real tragedy will not lie in the imposition of American authority on an unwilling world as much as in the embittered response of those who refuse to submit to it.

The Arab world has been inflamed by this war and will draw the conclusion that since American power cannot be confronted on its own terms, it must be dealt with asymmetrically. Like the young Catholics who signed up to fight for the IRA after Bloody Sunday, young men from Cairo to Amman will now beat a path to the door of anyone able to provide them with the means to hit back. As of today, that door is Osama bin Laden's. The dividing line between Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, once so clear, has become even more dangerously blurred as a result of our actions.

None of this is inevitable. But there is precious little evidence to suggest that the White House is interested in taking the sort of steps needed to prevent it. Bush may agree to the publication of the road map for a Middle East peace settlement, but he has no intention of taking the journey. He talks about a democratic Iraq, but his first priority is a compliant Iraq.

Unless I am wrong, and I hope that I am, it will become increasingly difficult for Tony Blair to claim that the demise of Saddam Hussein is a victory in anything more than the most pyrrhic sense of the term.

David Clark is a former foreign office special adviser