Gwynne Dyer: Siege spells beginning of end for US in Iraq
The situation in Iraq is "disintegration verging on collapse", Richard Holbrooke, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, said last month.
It was a month that saw more American troops killed than during last year's invasion, a decisive US defeat in Fallujah, and horrific revelations about the torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soldiers.
It may be years yet before the helicopters pluck the last Americans off the roof of the Baghdad embassy, but basically the game is up.
One hundred and thirty-five Americans were killed in Iraq in April, and a thousand wounded.
Meanwhile, any hope of getting the consent of Iraqis to a permanent US military and political presence in the country has gone down the drain.
The siege of Fallujah in response to the killing and mutilation of four American "security contractors" (mercenaries) at the end of March was a blunder that will be studied in military colleges for decades, the lesson being: when there is no way that you can succeed, it is wiser not to reveal your weakness by trying and failing.
There was no way that US Marines could occupy Fallujah and destroy the local resistance forces without killing thousands of Iraqis, most of them civilians. There was no way that they could ever identify and capture the men who killed and mutilated the "contractors".
Besieging the city was an emotional response that made no military or political sense, as they realised about three weeks too late.
"They" may be Paul Bremer's occupation regime in Baghdad, or may be the micro-managers back in the Pentagon who persistently usurp command functions in Iraq; the inquest that will finally lay the blame for this fatal move will happen only after US troops retreat from Iraq.
But in only one month they have succeeded in reviving Iraqi pride and national identity on the basis of a shared anti-Americanism, and given the Arab and Muslim world nightly television lessons in how popular resistance can defeat US power.
After the first week's fighting killed the better part of a thousand people in Fallujah (with Arab TV crews in the city making it clear that a high proportion of the victims were civilians), somebody in the US occupation forces realised the extent of the disaster and insisted on the talks that eventually let the US forces walk away without launching their final assault.
But the price, by then, was handing the city over to a locally born general, Jasim Mohamed Saleh, who was commanding one of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards divisions only 13 months ago, and to a force of former Iraqi soldiers living in the city.
General Saleh drove into Fallujah on Saturday wearing his old Iraqi Army uniform and waving the old Iraqi flag that the puppet Iraqi Governing Council has just abolished. The people of Fallujah had "rejected" the US Marines, he said.
Yesterday, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, insisted that Saleh had not yet been given the job, but that just put the extent of the disarray in the US military on public display.
Fallujah has become a no-go zone for American troops, and that is also the likely outcome of the parallel showdown in the holy city of Najaf between American troops and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The whole Arab world is absorbing the lesson that US military power has its limits while it seethes in fury at the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US and British forces.
One picture says it all: a 21-year-old female American soldier grinning at the camera, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, as she points in mockery at a naked male Iraqi prisoner who is being forced to masturbate by his captors.
You could not come up with an image better calculated to enrage and alienate Muslim opinion if you hired all the ad agencies in the world.
So the entire US neo-conservative adventure in the Middle East, never very plausible, is now doomed. Even the option of handing Iraq over to the United Nations and replacing American troops with Muslim troops under UN command, still viable a month ago, will soon be foreclosed unless UN officials take a firmer stand against the occupation regime.
It is going to get very messy.