THAT the US-led invasion of Iraq would win the war was never in doubt; the only question was how long it would take.
The victory in 21 days of fighting speaks volumes of the overwhelming superiority of American firepower in which some 725 Tomahawk missiles were fired and more than 14,000 precision-guided bombs were dropped in the first two weeks.
Against such firepower, some have argued that Saddam Hussein was doomed from the start, a lopsided mismatch between a Third World country under 12 years of sanctions and the world’s only superpower.
Others saw Saddam as a lousy general, who hardly put up the expected defence of Baghdad as most of his much-vaunted Republican Guard and militias, nearly 500,000 strong a month ago, simply melted away.
The resistance did not materialise as expected by some Iraqi exiles in London who had said that the fight, fuelled by national pride, would not be for Saddam but against foreign occupation.
What surprised many was the swift collapse of the regime, underlining a fatal flaw: it did not have the people’s support and, therefore, could never put up a fight, what more in a guerilla warfare.
Saddam’s last-ditch effort to portray himself as the new Saladdin defending Iraq and its sovereignty, its religion and power failed miserably. Not only did ordinary Iraqis not respond but showed what they thought of him.
One Arab commentator wondered whether the resistance would have been longer and fiercer if the regime had been democratic and just, instead of suppressing its people for 30 years.
An editorial in Egyptian daily Al Hayat – “anger was mixed with surprise in Egypt after the fall of the Iraqi capital without resistance to the invading American armies” – summed up the mood in the Arab world.
Many Arabs had identified with Saddam’s defiance of the US as a symbol of resistance to what they perceive as one-sided American handling of the Middle East crisis, especially under the Bush White House.
Over the years, the US has made known that its Middle East policy is governed by national interest, including access to the region’s vast oil reserves and defence of Israel.
American warnings to Iran and Syria have fuelled speculation that both countries might be the next targets under the so-called “domino theory” of a “democratic Iraq” paving the way for similar regime change in the Middle East.
Already, voices have been heard warning against more American military adventures in the Middle East, with Sueddeutsche Zeitung saying that the issue of pre-emptive war “may soon rise again in relation to a different hotspot.”
Then there is the promised US roadmap for a final settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
How viable will a Palestinian state be?
Will the Palestinians get a country but lose their independence?
The other questions concern whether Bush will resist Israeli pressure to water down the roadmap and apply pressure on the right-wing government under Ariel Sharon to make concessions they do not like.
Domestic political considerations will be important because Bush will be preparing for his re-election by September.
Will he take the risks with the powerful Israeli lobby and his conservative supporters?
The American electoral calendar may also impinge on the difficult process of rebuilding a post-Saddam political structure in a country made up of Kurds in the north, a Sunni Arab minority and a Shia majority.
Iraq was a British creation out of three Ottoman provinces. Kurds are also found in Syria, Iran and Turkey where Kurdish separatism is a sensitive issue.
How the US will deal with Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed more than a decade of autonomy, will be closely watched in Ankara, which sees Kurdish nationalism as a threat to its own security.
Such an amalgam of sectarian and ethnic divisions is bound to create what the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) called structural problems in Iraqi politics.
The state, it noted in a report, had used organised violence to dominate and shape society, either to buy loyalty or as a strategy of rule, and these facets of Iraqi politics had contributed to its violent political history.
Now that the US has overthrown Saddam, Washington will face two choices, said the RIIA report: either break the existing political mould and risk chaos or end up reinventing the same formula for ruling Iraq.
The Pentagon is for transformation of government with its proxy, the Iraqi National Congress, while the State Department, which is backing the Iraqi National Accord, is for conserving the existing governing structures.
If things don’t work out as planned, the RIIA report has not ruled out a militant, Iraqi nationalism focusing on “imperialist invaders” and their recently returned “collaborators.”
Winning the war was the easy bit, securing the peace is the difficult part.