The US and British occupation of Iraq has accelerated recruitment to the ranks of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and made the world a less safe place, according to a leading London-based think-tank.
The assessment, by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), states that the occupation has become "a potent global recruitment pretext" for al-Qa'ida, which now has more than 18,000 militants ready to strike Western targets.
It claims that although half of al-Qa'ida's 30 senior leaders and up to 2,000 rank-and-file members have been killed or captured, a rump leadership is still intact and over 18,000 potential terrorists are at large, with recruitment accelerating on account of Iraq. About 1,000 al-Qa'ida supporters are believed to be active in Iraq.
The IISS report, published yesterday, says that the Iraq invasion"galvanised" al-Qa'ida while weakening the campaign against terrorism. At the same time it has split the Western alliance, leaving the US and Britain isolated.
The report amounts to a sustained condemnation of US and British tactics, especially during the post-war period. Beginning with the decision of Paul Bremer, the US head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to dissolve the Iraqi army - leaving a security vacuum - it criticises the occupation tactics of American troops who stayed in large fortified bases and only emerged in heavily armed patrols.
The report adds that later swoops, which led to mass arrests, and aggressive house searches "perversely inspired insurgent violence".
But the report does not spare British commanders. It points out that, brutal as he was, Saddam Hussein never tried to disarm the Iraqi population. The killing of six British soldiers in the town of Majar al-Kabir in June last year was preceded by a British raid to search houses for weapons. At the same time, however, Kurdish militants were allowed to keep their weapons.
The report points out that such is the level of turmoil in Iraq that the US and Britain will need 500,000 troops in the country, a huge increase from the 145,000 the Allies have at present, to stabilise the country.
Jonathan Stevenson, the editor of the survey, said: "Invading Iraq damaged the war on terror, there is no doubt about that. It has strengthened rather than weakened al-Qa'ida."
The report also highlights the shortcomings of US policy after the toppling of Saddam. It says: "The lawlessness and looting that greeted the liberation of Baghdad on 9 April 2003 was replaced by widespread criminality, violence and instability. A year later, US troops and newly constituted Iraqi forces faced an insurgency that had become a solid obstacle to rebuilding the country and moving it towards democracy and stability."
Unable to cope with the situation, the US is now acquiescing to the formation of new private militias similar to the one patrolling Fallujah, says the IISS.
The CPA, says the report, has little knowledge of the area it is meant to control. And Iraqi exiles brought back to the country by the Americans to become the new political elite "are very unpopular ... they have not managed to penetrate Iraqi society, mobilise support or engender allegiance".
The IISS has strong establishment links, with former US and British government officials among its members. The Foreign Office contributed £100,000 towards the setting up of its headquarters in central London, and Baroness Thatcher and Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, then secretary general of Nato, attended the opening.
The IISS dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, published on 9 September 2002, was edited by Gary Samore, formerly of the US State Department, and presented by Dr John Chipman, a former Nato fellow. It was immediately seized on by Bush and Blair administrations as providing "proof" that Saddam was just months away from launching a chemical and biological, or even a nuclear attack. Large parts of the IISS document were subsequently recycled in the now notorious Downing Street dossier, published with a foreword by the Prime Minister, the following week.
However, unlike No 10, the IISS admits that it made mistakes in its dossier about the extent of the Iraqi threat, and has commissioned an independent assessment by Rolf Ekeus, a former head of United Nations arms inspectors in Iraq.
Dr Samore and Dr Chipman pointed out yesterday that its dossier had caveats about Iraq's supposed WMD arsenal, while the Government insisted on removing such caveats from intelligence assessments - leading to "sexing up" accusations.
Dr Chipman said of the behaviour of American forces: "The US is realising the awful truth that the first law of peacekeeping is the same as the first law of forensics: 'Every contact leaves a trace.' Unfortunately, too many bad traces have been left recently, and many good ones will be needed to recover its reputation, prestige and effective power."
Dr Samore said: "Whether or not the Iraq war is seen as a success in the long term would depend on the successful transfer of power to an Iraqi administration in a stable situation. That does not look very hopeful at the moment and this, of course, is related to how this war and its aftermath has been dealt with by the coalition."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd