Too hot to handle

On the 11th of this month, the US public will remember those who fell on that fateful day six years ago. The nation will also be remembering the thousands more who have fallen since, in the name of defeating the perpetrators of September 11. While in past years that 'sacrifice' was accepted by a great many Americans, this year's anniversary, particularly, will be observed in the dark shadow of the nightmare that has become Iraq.

The Iraq policy - establishing a stable and viable democracy in that country - emerged as a vital part of the Bush administration's post-September 11 agenda. Four years on from the invasion, however, that policy has created the possibility of al-Qaeda claiming a major victory: US withdrawal from Iraq in circumstances of total failure.

The planning for the 2003 war concentrated on the conflict, not on the subsequent rebuilding of Iraq. It was predicated on the assumption that toppling Saddam Hussein would be a difficult and casualty-intensive endeavour but that, once he was deposed, the situation would quickly revert to normal.

This assumption was based on 'dictator logic' - that dictators care only about staying in power, not what will happen once they're gone - and an absurdly simplistic view that, once the dictator fell, all of Iraq would quickly accept the new regime.

Compounding the lack of planning and resource allocation, the US immediately removed all those connected with the previous regime. This not only created a skills vacuum, but also drove many people into the growing insurgency.

When all is said and done, the bill for post-September 11 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone will exceed US$1 trillion: yet both states, and especially Iraq, will remain in turmoil, as strongholds for radical Islamist terrorists. When added to the huge and rising US death toll in Iraq - the total stood at 3,739 troops as of Saturday, with a further 298 coalition allies dead - plus the thousands of seriously wounded, Iraq has become an unmitigated disaster.

The record of the 'war on terror' is by no means all negative. There have been a number of successes against al-Qaeda: the US-led action in Afghanistan has denied the group an operating base. As a consequence, it must function on a smaller and less adventurous scale, from the shadows.

But Iraq is likely to prove the most enduring legacy of the anti-terror effort. The United States and its allies have failed to achieve a single one of their main post-war objectives, and Iraq is in the stranglehold of civil war. Yet the US will in all likelihood withdraw many or most of its troops during the next presidential term, whether a Democrat or Republican prevails in next November's poll.

The US committed unprecedented resources to the project of establishing a stable, single-constituency democracy in Iraq - with Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds living together in a single political entity. But once American forces withdraw, Iraq will be in grave danger of breaking into a set of competing entities.

If it breaks apart on sectarian lines, what will likely emerge is a Kurdish entity in the north, a Shiite one in the south - and a battle-royal between Sunnis in central Iraq and Kurds for control of disputed oil fields bordering the Kurdish-dominated north.

That would immediately result in a set of regional dynamics deeply troubling for Washington. Turkey, a key military ally, remains vociferously opposed to any autonomous Kurdish entity in the region: the Turkish army threatened this year to intervene militarily in Iraqi Kurdistan if need be. Meanwhile, a Shiite state in the south would gravitate towards America's arch-enemy, fellow Shiite Iran.

Iraq has rendered the Bush administration as impotent, domestically and internationally, as any US administration in living memory. This ensures that many tangible and genuine victories against al-Qaeda, and Islamist terrorism in general, have been lost amid the daily diet of death from Iraq.

The No1 challenge for the next president will therefore be how to throw off the political albatross that Iraq has become, in a manner that the extremists cannot claim as an al-Qaeda victory. Only then can the campaign against global Islamist terrorism - and the process of ensuring that a second September 11 never comes to pass - once again can be put back on track. Republican and Democrat presidential candidates are already devising strategies for doing this in the post-Bush era. For now, though, the policy remains stubbornly unchanged - the president fiddles as Baghdad burns.

Hagai Segal, a terrorism and Middle East specialist, lectures at New York University in London