BY RAY FLEMING

THIS special Iraq Watch column began in mid–February and has appeared daily. Today it comes to an end and comment on Iraq–related topics will revert to the Viewpoint and Comment columns on page 2. To all intents and purposes the war against Iraq appears to be over although isolated and intermittent action may follow for some time. The outcome in military terms was never in doubt but stronger resistance from the Iraqi forces had been expected. The American and British forces have carried out their tasks bravely and with an efficiency marred only by the untoward frequency of “friendly fire” incidents. It is already apparent that the peace will be much harder to win than the war. Yesterday's press conference given in Belfast by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair was almost totally devoid of substantive content. It is not unreasonable to ask whether Mr Bush's journey was really necessary. If it was designed to boost Mr Blair's standing it failed completely because on the three topics believed to be on the agenda nothing whatsoever of significance emerged at the press conference. On the issue of the role of the United Nations in post–war Iraq it was clear from Mr Bush's remarks that despite Mr Blair's views he had not yielded at all from his previous position that the US would be in charge – notwithstanding a ritual reference to the UN's “vital role”. On the Middle East in general Mr Bush offered nothing about progress on the road–map for an Israeli/Palestinian settlement that he first mentioned nine months ago. On Northern Ireland he made only vaguely supportive remarks for the latest stage of the peace process currently under way. Blair was in a particularly embarrassing position over the question of United Nations involvement in post–war Iraq. He tried to hide his difficulty by saying that the argument over whether the US or the UN should be in charge was about a false choice because the Iraqis themselves must be in charge. Blair knows perfectly well that the debate concerns the all–important interim period before a legitimate Iraqi administration can be put together. It is now looking increasingly as if the Pentagon – not the State Department or even the White House – will be the ones running Iraq in the forseeable future. The war was a bad business. The peace looks like being even worse.

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