The Return of a Forgotten Ideology: The Iraqi Resistance Has Breathed Life into the Corpse of Arab Nationalism. the British and Americans Risk Puffing Saddam on the T-Shirts. (War/The Arab World)

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The fierce fight at the Euphrates river-crossing at Nasiriyah, and the vigorous harassment of British forces on the outskirts of Basra, not only thwarted US and British plans for a bloodless victory over the Iraqi regime. The resistance from soldiers and civilians in southern Iraq breathed life into what had seemed until that point the deadest dog in international politics: the political ideology known as Arab nationalism.

With its tired paraphernalia of cement socialism, personality cults, hyper-literary rhetoric, police repression and military adventure, Arab nationalism had been written off as moribund ever since the crushing defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1967.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, which punctured the facade even of a rhetorical Arab unity, appeared to have delivered the coup de grace. Instead, the pan-Islamic ideology promoted by Osama Bin Laden and the veterans of the 1980s Afghan revolt against the Soviets excited the imaginations of a dejected and demoralised Arab world. Yet the events of the past week have shown that news of the death of Arab nationalism may be premature.

Imagine that Saddam Hussein -- or some member of his family or inner circle -- survived the US onslaught with control of a portion of Iraq. The result would be a profound alteration in the distribution of power in the Arab world.

The western allies in the region would be obliged to accommodate an Iraq as self-confident as when Saddam attempted to displace Egypt as the head of the Arab world in 1978. In Iran, the anti-reform and anti-American forces would be strengthened, while the Palestinian radicals in Gaza and the West Bank would feel they could reject any accommodation with Israel. The would-be suicide bombers and Binladenites, orphaned by the destruction of their Afghan base two winters ago, would come under the protection and sponsorship of one or other Arab state.

As for Saddam, he would be crowned with the aura of Gamal Abdel Nasser after he frustrated the Anglo-French-Israeli attempt to seize the Suez Canal in 1956. Saddam, not Bin Laden, would be on Arab children's T-shirts.

That is not a likely outcome. But in a region as desperate for champions as the Arab world, even a week's resistance against the force and technical ability of the United States will be hailed as the work of a hero. Those Arabs who secretly rejoiced at the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 openly praise the defence of Iraqi cities. Remember, Saddam and his allies treated as victory even the ignominious retreat from Kuwait in January 1991 and commissioned interminable panegyrics in medieval Arabic on the theme of the "mother of all battles".

In those circumstances, Britain and the US may come to regret not leaving this particular animal alone.

Arab nationalism, which began life in secret societies in the Arab contingents of the Ottoman army before the First World War, has always defined itself as a struggle against non-Arabs: first the Ottoman Turks who administered much of the eastern Arab world until 1918, then the British and French mandatory powers, then Jewish immigrants in Palestine and finally the state of Israel.

Iraq itself was established by the British in the closing years of the First World War. Having been shown the perils of long supply lines from Basra when an army from British India was forced to surrender to the Turks at Kut on the Tigris in 1916, the British captured Baghdad the following year and then brazenly detached a third Ottoman province, that of Mosul and including the Kurdish mountains, at the armistice in 1918. …