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Like a belly dancer who allows members of the audience to peel off layers of clothing, U.S. President George W. Bush is being stripped of each justification for the war against Iraq. Last Wednesday, a joint Congressional committee found that there is no proof of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida. With this stroke, a second justification vanished: the first was taken away when it became clear that no weapons of mass destruction were to be found in Iraq.

Compared to the start of the war, when there was a putatively clear and immediate danger to the Middle East and world peace, President Bush has been left with a fig leaf to cover his policies - the removal of dictatorship and the building of democracy in Iraq.

Next week the magic show is scheduled to begin. On Wednesday, official responsibility for managing Iraq is to be transferred to the provisional government. The U.S. will return the designation "conqueror" to the United Nations; and formally it will heed policies set by Iyad Alawi's government.

The removal of dictatorship and the establishment of democracy are worthy causes. However, they are not normally causes of war. The real problem, at any event, is that the goal of democracy appears to be slipping through the Americans' hands. Mass terror strikes in which at least 100 persons were murdered in one week, continuing car bomb attacks, ongoing strikes against oil pipelines and the assassinations of public figures: all of this suggests that the war in Iraq is reaching a new phase of violent political conflict.

For the time being, the attacks are not aimed exclusively at American targets. Iraqi institutions have been targeted - police stations, public facilities, and Iraqi public figures. Iraq's new government will not be able to ward off its domestic enemies without the continued massive presence of a foreign army. Nine armed militias of some 100,000 soldiers have promised that they will join the new Iraqi army; but these militias have yet to disarm themselves as independent forces; Kurdish forces, which deploy some 150,000 soldiers, have announced that they will not disband; and there are a variety of other armed partisans, weapon-wielding criminal gangs, members of radical organizations who have come to Iraq from other nations and others who bear serious grudges.

This survey of Iraq's military situation should also take into account tens of thousands of civilian security personnel who work for companies and government ministries. These security men continue to make a good living for themselves in Iraq's chaos. Political grudges remain intact: The Kurds are unhappy with the Security Council's decisions, and fear that they are losing their chance to gain control in Kirkuk; and internal disputes among Shi'ite streams in Iraq are liable to produce violent power struggles.

So if the U.S. wants to uphold the lone remaining justification of the war - the establishment of democracy in Iraq - it will have to remain in the country as unofficial conqueror. Yet its presence will cast a dark shadow upon any Iraqi government, for it will be perceived as a power that rules at the behest of American armed force. Israel has an interest in the success of America's effort in Iraq. America's prestige in the Middle East is on the line. Without credibility, the U.S. would have no chance to resolve disputes as a mediator.

And so it has come about that a war that was to cause real change in the Middle East, inspire a comprehensive peace process and put an end to the era of wars has joined the collection of wars that failed to spark political progress. And one more small thing: Up to now, the war is estimated to have cost the U.S. a mere $120 billion. A tenth of this sum would provide a springboard for the solution of the Israel-Palestinian dispute; another tenth would have vast impact on the Jordanian and Egyptian economies; and another tenth would solve the main part of the refugee issue (it's reasonable to assume that Syria would not remain apathetic as it views the allocation of such sums elsewhere - just as Libya acknowledged the economic returns that are to be reaped via ideological turnabouts). All these price figures seem particularly conspicuous when considering the not-impressive results of the war against Iraq.