March 19, 2007 -- AS the world this week marks the fourth anniver sary of the Iraq war's start, the right and wrongs of the U.S.-led mission remains a hot topic of debate.
Those who believe it was wrong to remove Saddam Hussein by force may never change their minds. The same is true of those who believe that war as such should be scripted out of the international system, even if that means allowing a few bloodthirsty despots to keep whole nations hostage for decades.
Leaving aside such ideologically immutable positions, there are also those who criticize the war not because it was unjust but because it has failed to achieve its objectives. Sen. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic 2008 presidential nomination, appears to have adopted that position.
The problem with that position is that it doesn't spell out the objectives that the Iraq war has supposedly failed to achieve.
It is thus necessary to return to 2003 and recall the objectives stated at the time.
The first was to end Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations for more than 12 years. That defiance might have ended without war, had Saddam agreed to hand over power to a caretaker government that did not suffer from a massive deficit of trust. Saddam and his clan, however, refused to contemplate the option. Thus, their removal from power became the war's prime objective.
A quick checklist shows that the war achieved all its objectives.
š Saddam's regime was toppled.
š Its machinery of war and internal repression was dismantled.
š Decades of one-party rule - the "Republic of Fear" - came to an end.
š Political power was taken from the brutal and corrupt ruling elite and transferred to the Iraqi people as a whole.
š Iraqis discovered such things as freedom of expression, media without censorship and a plethora of political parties to choose from.
š For the first time, the Iraqi people were able to write their own Constitution, hold their own general elections, choose their own government and start building their own institutions.
Not surprisingly, such achievements did not go unchallenged: The new emerging Iraq came under attack from many different quarters almost immediately.
* Those who have vilified the United States as a rapacious power trying to steal other nations' natural wealth would not admit that this time - maybe, just maybe - the United States was doing the right thing in the right place.
* Those who hated George W. Bush and Tony Blair would do all they could to portray Iraq as a fiasco, quagmire, new Vietnam, etc.
But the new Iraq has other enemies.
* The mullahs of Tehran cannot allow Iraq - a Shiite majority nation like Iran - to have a pluralist system with democratic elections while the Khomeinist regime maintains a one-party state under its "supreme guide."
* The Arab despots, too, have reason to want this new Iraq to fail. The speedy collapse of he Saddamite regime ended the myth of pan-Arab nationalism - and also showed that, given a chance, an Arab nation could join the mainstream of a global system based on pluralism, a market economy and human rights. The success of that model in Iraq could spell the end of despotisms in place in most Arab states.
* The jihadi groups that dream of conquering the world in the name of their brand of Islam are equally determined to prevent new Iraq from striking roots and stabilizing.
Those familiar with al Qaeda's literature in the past four years know that all jihadi groups regard new Iraq as the principal battlefield between Osama bin Laden's version of Islam and modernity.
The new Iraq also has determined enemies within:
* The Shiite sectarians, often linked to the Khomeinist regime in Tehran, have done all in their power to destabilize the country and undermine the democratically elected institutions.
* Sunni sectarians, often supported by governments or groups in Arab states, have pursued similar objectives.
* The Saddamite regime's remnants, especially the 200,000 or so members of the Ba'athist Republican Guard, provide the backbone of rival Shiite and Sunni insurgent groups and death squads.
The struggle for Iraq is so bloody and bitter because the stakes are extremely high. The success of the democratic forces and their allies, notably America, in preserving the above achievements could have as dramatic an impact in the Middle East as the Soviet Union's fall had in Europe.
Preserving the victory achieved in Iraq means delivering a deathblow to all the Middle East's demons: the pan-Arab chauvinists, the Khomeinists, al Qaeda and other jihadis, Shiite and Sunni sectarians, and reactionary autocrats.
With the Iraqi people's help, the U.S.-led Coalition has won a historic victory against the combined forces of darkness. The real issue in Iraq now is preserving that victory against its many enemies who can and are being defeated.
Iranian-born journalist and author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.