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THE image of a giant Saddam Hussein statue being pulled down in a Baghdad square, with more than a little help from US soldiers, is unlikely to fade away soon. Equally disturbing, if not ugly, were the scenes of defilement – of the statue, photographs of Saddam, above all, of the city. A breakdown of law and order, a chance to loot, pent up rage – take your pick. It is never a pleasant sight to watch a once proud city and people reduced to a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’.

What all this holds in store – for the Iraqis, the Arab peoples and states, Muslim communities all over the world, or us, onlookers to the unfolding drama – is uncertain. The war, invasion, genocide – the choice of words reflecting the user’s predilection – has proven many of us wrong. The military operation has gone smoother than what most sceptics prophesied. No one knows what happened to the fabled Revolutionary Guards, or indeed the many members of the Baath Party. Is it that, a heretical thought amongst the ‘politically correct’, the Saddam regime was held together primarily through terror? This is what the ‘victors’ would want us to believe.

What if there is more than a glimmer of truth in the ‘propaganda’ being unleashed by the mainstream western media? True, the coalition forces have still to unearth any evidence of weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical or biological. But will the shots of prisons and torture chambers or the luxurious palaces of the erstwhile rulers be sufficient to ‘sell’ the story of a ‘just’ war? How is one to square these accounts with the other evidence of hospitals and schools, a sophisticated urban infrastructure, above all, a skilled, articulate and confident people which even a decade of crippling sanctions was unable to wipe out.

Surely, no matter what future historians may claim, it will be difficult to pass off Saddam and his regime as merely a rapacious, tin-pot dictatorship. With difficulties surfacing in winning the peace – be it security or reviving civic infrastructure, what to speak of welding together a new ‘coalition of the willing’ – we may well witness a revival of nostalgia for the old regime, much in the way the cult of Stalin has re-emerged in Russia.

The military prowess assembled by the coalition force may have stunned the Arab world into silence. We clearly have not witnessed the kind of protest anticipated in the region. But for that matter nor is there evidence of growing support for the US led intervention, despite the ‘reported’ divide between peoples and regimes all across the Middle East.

So, is everyone just watching and waiting for the next US move, the grand plan to rebuild, restructure and democratize, first Iraq and then the region? If the coalition forces behave intelligently, with humanism and humility, they may possibly be able to escape the odium associated with invaders. Why, one may even visualise a resurgent region with indigenous regimes using the wealth, not for purchasing arms, suppressing dissidents and fomenting trouble elsewhere through export of religious extremism and terror.

If, however, this sounds like a fanciful pipe dream, it is less because the peoples of the region are not ready to join the ‘modern, democratic world’ with its emphasis on individual liberty and freedom, human rights and the supremacy of law, but more because the current victors are fully complicit in propping up regimes which serve the self-interest of the United States. It bears reiteration that despite the fig-leaf of humanitarian assistance, the prime energies of the coalition have been directed towards securing the oil fields.

The battle for spoils has already begun; even battles for ‘freedom’ must be paid for. Given that no country, including those who opposed the US intervention, wants to be left out of the loop (our own included), the US can use the reconstruction carrot to win friends and isolate potential competition.

Much like 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union – Iraq 2003 represents a crucial landmark in the global landscape. The coming years are likely to witness an increasing struggle between the US and allies on one side and ‘old’ Europe, Russian and China on the other to both control resources and put into place new rules of business.

The downside is that a substantial part of this battle will be fought out on our territories. So how we ‘read’ the future and ‘position’ ourselves will decide not just our fate, but possibly that of the world. The emerging situation demands not impotent rage and breast- beating, but leadership. It remains to be seen whether we are up to the challenge.

Harsh Sethi