The case mounted by the United States, Britain and Mr Howard's Australia for the invasion and conquest of Iraq did not depend on the undisputed fact that the Saddam regime was a vicious and oppressive dictatorship. It rested on the claim that Iraq was running active large scale programs for development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their delivery systems. This, if true, would have been in violation of obligations accepted by Iraq at the conclusion of the 1991 war and certainly would have been a significant destabilising factor in Iraq's region. (American claims that Iraq was still developing a long-range missile capable of reaching the continental US, however, were never very credible).
It is important to understand that it was WMD alone which justified the 2003 attack on Iraq. The regime's character alone could not justify invasion, unless every oppressive government on the planet is also to be forcibly deposed by US-led forces. But, even exempting China and North Korea because of the risk of nuclear warfare, the regimes of Burma (Myanmar), Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba, and Libya, to name a few, have little fear of American attack in the foreseeable future. Only the addition of a wide-ranging WMD threat made it possible to construct a case for the conquest of Iraq.
This case, and with it the credibility of the three main Coalition states (including Australia) now lies in ruins. Months of painstaking work by over one thousand inspectors have revealed only the detritus of the pre-1991 Iraqi WMD programs. No evidence of significant activity between 1991 and 2003 has been found. It should be obvious to any reasonable observer that there was no such activity: it is not possible in an occupied country to conceal former large scale production of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or of the missiles and specialised devices necessary to deliver them to targets.
Even before the end of World War II, with the limited surveillance and intelligence capabilities of the time, the enemies of Nazi Germany knew of the V-weapon production sites and testing grounds and of the (fortunately primitive) nuclear research being carried on by German scientists in Strassburg (then a German town annexed from France). With the German surrender, Allied teams went directly to the missile production sites to collect both hardware and the core of Germany's rocket scientists, led by Werner von Braun. Another team went to Strassburg on its liberation to assess the Nazi nuclear effort.
Contemporary Iraq is as much at the command of its occupiers as was immediate postwar Germany. Notwithstanding this, after months of occupation and diligent searching, the US has been unable to produce evidence in support of its prewar claims.
If this were not enough, there is the recent resignation of Mr David Kay, till last week head of the US-mandated postwar WMD inspection effort. Kay was deemed a sufficiently credible authority to have been cited by President Bush in his recent State of the Union address. But now Kay has said: "I don't think they [WMD] existed," and added, "What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last  Gulf War, and I don't think there was a large-scale production program in the '90s."
Even this body blow to the US case was capped a day later by Secretary of State Colin Powell's admission that Iraqi WMD are now an "open question". He said: "What is the open question is how many stocks they had if any, and if they had any where did they go? And if they didn't have any, why wasn't that known beforehand?" The last, at least, is a very pertinent question indeed. Colin Powell always showed the least enthusiasm for war of any of the George W. Bush Cabinet, and his statement can perhaps be taken as an "I told you so" to his more hawkish and less scrupulous colleagues.
These developments show that beyond any reasonable doubt the United States, Britain and Australia went to war on a false premise. Thus we are confronted with two alternative conclusions, neither of which is especially edifying.
One possibility is that the intelligence communities of all three states - granted, with the US in the lead - made an appalling misestimation of what was happening in Iraq, seeing signs of WMD and missile development where there was none. Any such error was, no doubt, encouraged by Saddam's stubborn resistance to and obstruction of UN weapons inspections in the years after 1991: "what are they trying to hide?" is the obvious question such behaviour raises. If, as now appears likely, this behaviour was for reasons of prestige, assertion of sovereignty and a general anti-American attitude, it represents a fatal misjudgement by the Saddam regime.
Yet intelligence failure does not appear all that credible. The evidence published pre-war by the US and UK (specifically, Secretary Powell's presentation to the UN and Prime Minister Blair's notorious dossier on Iraq) was weak and unconvincing. It seems that neither intelligence community was able to offer its government anything of real substance with which to convince their domestic constituencies or international opinion. The ongoing furore in the UK over Blair's possible misuse or "spinning" of the intelligence advice he received likewise suggests that the advice itself was hardly unequivocal. And there also were pre-war reports that the American CIA was far from happy with the way the Pentagon was using CIA Iraq-sourced material.
The alternative explanation is even less edifying. It is, simply, that the US government knew all along that there was no evidence for a post-1991 Iraqi WMD program but, taking advantage of Saddam's foolish resistance to inspections, used the issue as a pretext for a war upon which it had already determined. It is that the Bair and Howard governments likewise understood the insubstantial nature of the WMD charges, but decided to support the United States, in all probability to discomfort their domestic opponents and avoid the kind of displeasure visited upon France and other US allies who refused to join the war. It is, simply put, that the US and its allies waged a shabby war of aggression and conquest on a fabricated pretext. If as appears probable this explanation is the truth of the matter, the three countries stand shamed before the entire world.