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Middle East: Bring Back Saddam Hussein?

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If it weren't for the God-awful mess in Syria, I suspect we'd be paying a great deal more attention to the God-awful mess in Iraq.

We should be, anyway. This month alone, more than 500 people have been killed in almost daily bomb attacks, and last month was reported to be the most violent the country has seen for nearly five years.

Perhaps you remember the so-called pottery barn rule that was said to have been used by former US secretary of state Colin Powell in his discussions with George W Bush: "You break it, you buy it, you own it." Maybe the US, UK and their allies don't exactly own Iraq after the invasion of 2003, but it's not difficult to argue that at the very least they were responsible for breaking it.

Let me be clear: I do not wish to argue that Iraq would have been better off with Saddam Hussein still in power. That, even after the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the years after 2003, is a judgement that only Iraqis are entitled to make.

I visited Iraq during Saddam's time; I also visted Libya under Gaddafi and have visited Syria under Assad, so I have no illusions about the nature of their regimes. I am a convinced democrat, but I also recognise that dictatorship brings with it a degree of stability that enables many people to live their lives in a way that simply hasn't been possible in the turmoil of the recent past.

When I returned to Iraq in 2004, on the first anniversary of the toppling of Saddam, I wrote that the message from most Iraqis I spoke to could be simply summarised: "We're glad Saddam Hussein has gone; we wish the Americans would go too; but we're desperately worried about the future of our country."

They could see what was coming, because when you remove the lid from the pressure cooker, you discover all kinds of things that have been bubbling away inside. In Iraq, dangerous fault-lines between Shia and Sunni Muslims, cynically exploited by outside powers, and in Libya, tribal and territorial tensions that have made the country post-Gaddafi virtually ungovernable.

So no one should be surprised if Western governments are reluctant to repeat the mistakes of the past. If you wanted to put a positive gloss on their Syria inertia, I suppose you could say that at least they've learned something from the experience of the past decade.

Ask yourself this: are most Iraqis better off now than they were pre-2003? Are most Libyans living better lives than they were under Gaddafi? And, hand on heart, how confident are you that most Syrians would be better off with Bashar al-Assad gone?

So here's a little test for you. Who said this? "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Throughout the Middle East the fear of free choices can no longer justify the denial of liberty. It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy."

It sounds like something Barack Obama would say, doesn't it? Or maybe Hillary Clinton? In fact, it was Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Cairo in 2005. And you could argue, perhaps, that the hundreds of thousands of Arab Spring revolutionaries who built the barricades on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria five years later were simply taking her at her word.

But make no mistake: when the royal rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar pour millions of dollars into Syria to help topple Assad, it's not because they've discovered a deep love of democracy. It's because they see Syria as the battleground on which they will finally defeat Iran, Syria's most powerful regional ally, and, of course, a Shia state which the Sunni royal families of the Gulf regard with deep suspicion.

Which brings us, if you're still with me, back to Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a secular Sunni ruler in a country where most citizens are Shia. Now, the Shia are in control, closely allied to Iran, and uncomfortably neutral in Syria. And it's beginning to look as if Iraq could soon be sucked back into the bloody sectarian mayhem of 2007-8, as it is pulled into the same abyss in which the people of Syria are now being slaughtered.

And if all that's not bad enough, add to the mix poor little Lebanon, once again under the cosh of regional power rivalry, and an increasingly jittery Israel, watching nervously as the latest Russian weaponry turns up on its doorstep. The match is getting perilously close to the tinder box.

If George Bush and Tony Blair still believe, as they used to argue so passionately, that the Middle East is clearly better off with Saddam Hussein gone, it'd be interesting to hear their evidence. But evidence, of course, was never their strongest point.

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