This week marked a catastrophic fourth anniversary for the Arab world: the fall of Baghdad and America's military occupation of a major Arab country. Since the repercussions of that event continue to take their pernicious toll, the forces of conscience have little alternative but to dry their tears, rise above the pain and set in motion a process of honest and objective reassessment. Only then will we derive the lessons that will enable us to avoid mistakes that will expose Arabs to new and even greater calamities.

Four years down the road from its invasion and occupation, the U.S. appears not only incapable of achieving a conclusive victory, but of remaining in Iraq long enough to achieve half of what it set out to. The withdrawal of American forces is now but a matter of time, which some see as a beginning of the end of the U.S.- Zionist enterprise in the region. Yet what matters here is not the beginning of the end, but the aftermath upon which is pinned the hopes for a new Iraq, with robust ties to the rest of its Arab environment, because it's impossible to envision a strong Arab world without Iraq. That country must be rescued from its plight and its territorial integrity and Arab identity safeguarded. These are the first steps that need to be taken to establish of an Arab-Islamic alternative to American-Israeli regional plans.

Unfortunately, although we are now just beginning to glimpse the end of the American occupation, it's still impossible to discern how Iraq will survive as an intact nation capable of picking itself up and making a healthy recovery. Moreover, the withdrawal of American forces may not necessarily mean the demise of the American-Zionist project.

Withdrawal in this case may be no more than a tactic - a chance to regroup and then lash out again at new targets using different means to accomplish the same mission. They may well have resigned themselves to losing the battle, but be resolved to win the war.

It's deeply disturbing that the forces in Iraq, which have contributed directly or indirectly to breaking the back of the American occupation, have no clear vision of what a new Iraq should look like, and no clear idea of how it should arrange its regional and international alliances in the future. Nor can they safeguard the unity of Iraq and ensure its stability after a U.S. withdrawal. Therefore, officials and patriotic forces in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world should be prepared for the possibility that the end of the American occupation could usher in a phase equally dangerous - if not more so. They would be wise to immediately begin developing new alliances and taking appropriate and effective precautions to prevent a slide into new conflicts.

An honest assessment of Iraq since the invasion will help dispel a good many illusions, many of which about the United States. Take for example, the entire body of literature that insists that democratic countries behave in a more civilized manner than others and that they act more responsibly and in keeping with the law. This theory, often used to justify tolerating nuclear weapons in the hands of certain pro-Western nations [Israel], met its ignominious demise in the Iraqi quagmire. The world has seen how the neo-conservatives in the White House - that diabolical clique of thugs - was able to seize upon a combination of international circumstances to commandeer the decision-making process in what was said to be the most democratic nation on earth. They were then able to turn the enormous military and economic machinery of that nation toward perpetrating one of the most horrendous crimes in human history.

The current American administration, controlled by a band of ideological zealots no less dangerous than the Nazis, has displayed nothing but contempt for democracy, the rule of law and universally cherished humanitarian norms. It launched an unprovoked war against an independent nation, against the will of the international community and without a U.N. mandate, and it blatantly lied, forged documents and falsified information every step of the way. However poorly calculated it was, this was not so much war as it was an act of premeditated armed robbery of unprecedented magnitude, in which the toll of wounded, displaced and murdered innocent human lives ranges in the millions.

Add to this Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the illegal detentions and systematic torture practiced at other secret prisons, and one realizes how vast the distance is between the ideological rhetoric that trumpets democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, and the actual practices of an administration that has paraded beneath this rhetoric.

If those who perpetrated these atrocities and crimes against humanity are not brought to account before the international criminal court, then why exactly was that court established?

Another illusion that has not quite vanished, but probably will soon, has to do with the mutability of U.S. foreign policy. Bush's bungling in Iraq was largely responsible for the defeat of the Republican Party in America's midterm Congressional elections. Some take this as a sign of an immanent revolution in American foreign policy, toward the Middle East in particular. I do not.

Democratic Party opponents to the policies of the current administration are motivated less by moral qualms than by electoral considerations. Opinion polls, in keeping with a culture that hates losers and cheers winners, have swung heavily against Bush. Nor should we forget that the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton commission - that Bush so foolishly snubbed - reflected a bipartisan consensus. Put another way, the Democrats are catching the tide of public opinion, shaped primarily by American money and lives that have gone down the drain in Iraq (so far some 3,500 troops have died in this war, 25,000 have been wounded and a total of $3 trillion has been spent).

Therefore, there will undoubtedly be some change in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, but it's difficult to envision a radical change. Whatever policy U.S. Democrats advocate, it is bound to be a pragmatic one. For example, channels of dialogue with Syria and Iran may open up. Ultimately, however, U.S. Middle East policy will run up against two main obstacles: Israel's interests as marketed by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee , and the difficulty and complexity of the inter-relationships between the situation in Iraq and that in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Because there is no prospect of a White House capable of handling such a complicated portfolio with the necessary alacrity, foresight and resolve - Democrat or Republican - chances are that the U.S., swayed by pressure and manipulation by the Zionist lobby, will opt for half-measures, such as a withdrawal within the framework of a partitioned Iraq, which for the Middle East would be nothing but a gateway to new and expanding lines of confrontation.

The illusions about Iraq that have imploded are too many to count. Here, I would like to focus on one: the illusion of "victory," claimed by some factions that have taken up arms against the occupation, each of which has its own plans for the future of Iraq. There is a big difference between defeating the occupier and ensuring that Iraq comes out the victor. Many factors made the defeat of the United States possible. Foremost among them were the miscalculations and mistakes made by the Bush Administration and its armed forces.

This by no means is intended to belittle the steadfastness of the resistance, the untold sacrifices of those who bore arms against the occupation and those who by other means resisted the American project in Iraq. But while it's one thing to confront a common enemy, it's quite another to rally resistance forces around the goal of making Iraq whole and healthy after the enemy leaves. If Iraqis don't come to terms with the fact that the road ahead requires a common vision, a spirit of tolerance and a readiness to compromise, then they will not be able to turn the defeat of the occupier into a victory for Iraq. This can only be achieved when the Iraqis agree on a concept for a unified government - federal if need be, but along geographic as opposed to ethnic or sectarian lines - and a democratic order, but a democracy founded on citizenship rather than denominational quotas.

Finally, other nations in the region have had their own illusions bite the dust in Iraq. Here I would like to focus on that belief - entertained by certain powers - that Iraq presented a historic opportunity to redraw the geopolitical map and tilt the strategic balance in their own favor. The Arab world appears caught between two regional projects, one Israeli, the other Iranian. They even share certain characteristics. Israel's undeclared but certain strategy is to fragment the region into petty sectarian entities that it hopes will confer the legitimacy that the Zionist enterprise still seeks, and which would make Israel the cornerstone of a new regional order within which it would orchestrate developments and secure Western interests.

The Iranian strategy - although the degree of unanimity in Tehran is uncertain - is to capitalize on the current situation hoping to fulfill the dream of reviving the Persian Empire - even if this drive derives its impetus from a blend of Islamic fundamentalism and specifically Shiite beliefs. Both designs - the one that is actually on the drawing board and the other that may not have made it that far yet - are the stuff of fantasy, but dangerous fantasies that have the potential to plunge the region into an endless morass of conflict and war. Already - both are intent on fanning sectarian tensions, the one [Israel's] by igniting fear of a "Shiite crescent" led by Iran, and the other [Iran's] by raving against the Arab-led "Sunni sea," and charging that it is in open or secret collusion with the Zionist project.

This latter [the Iranian strategy], which poses the greatest threat to the region, is poised to capitalize on every wedge being driven into the Arab world - with its Muslims and Christians - and the Islamic world - with its Sunnis and Shiites.

This is therefore a crossroads that calls not for further fantasy, but for reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite. Not only in Iraq, but across the Islamic world. It is also time for global Arab-Islamic reconciliation, to bring Iran, Turkey and the Arab states together within a strategic framework to resist the Zionist project.