God will judge Tony Blair on the Iraq war. Or so the Prime Minister told Michael Parkinson. Think back to another television appearance, this time last year. On that occasion, Mr Blair faced a studio of women and a different ombudsman. History would deliver its verdict on him, he said. His audience denounced his war, but he was certain that no tribunal, divine or temporal, would ever find his judgment wanting.
This time, as the third anniversary of the start of war approaches, Mr Blair sounded less sure. Wishful thinking, maybe, but he looked to me like a man haunted, at last, by what he had unleashed. If Mr Blair is finally realising his catastrophic error, that shift is partly down to the mothers, wives and partners who have never stopped pointing out the folly of this conflict.
Wednesday is International Women's Day. It will be marked by thousands of petitions for peace, to be handed in at US embassies across the world. Such pleas have rarely looked more hopeless. Hundreds lie dead after the bombing of the golden mosque at Samarra. The old conflict, a daily toll of death and suffering, may soon be swept away by new variant civil meltdown. From Burnley to Baghdad, women warned of this. Obviously, millions of men did so, too, but female opponents outnumbered male ones in Britain, and their Iraqi counterparts faced the hideous fate always meted out to the women and children of war.
It was not that they had prospered under Saddam Hussein and UN sanctions. In Basra, in 2002, 25 out of the 26 obstetrics and gynaecology students were women. Yet their patients were weak and sick, and one in eight of the babies they delivered would not see their fifth birthday.
Grief is more random now. A week ago today, a group of Iraqi mothers watched their teenage sons leave for a game of football. They never saw them again, unless you count a morgue visit to identify body parts scraped from a bombed pitch. Other women will struggle to be heard on Wednesday. Sharia law, they say, has pushed a once-secular society back into a medieval world. Honour killings, beheadings, forced veiling, rape, acid attacks and sexual servitude are a part of everyday life. So are power cuts, dead phone lines, ruptured fuel supplies and no food because the markets are shut and silent.
This time three years ago, the planet echoed to the testosteronic din of men marching to war. The UN said no, but God said yes. Politicians bought the neocon fairy tale that totalitarian regimes would collapse into dust, allowing westernised democracies to spring up in their place. Women, and less credulous men, were not so eager to believe that the God-given goodness of America and Britain trumped law and logic. Nor could they grasp how attacking nation states wipes out stateless terror.
The noise has turned to purdah. When 60 people died in a single day last week, newspapers and TV networks barely mentioned it. Incipient civil meltdown, insurgency and a more powerful Iran, intent on getting a nuclear bomb, attract hardly more coverage than a prize dahlia contest at a village fete. Iraq was the prototype of the sitting-room war, in which all would be seen, 24/7, and all explained. But the chloroform rag of boredom, embarrassment or hopelessness prevailed. We are all anaesthetised now.
In that vacuum, the voice of women has not died. Last week, the families of 18 servicemen killed in Iraq delivered a petition to an absent Prime Minister. Tony Blair was not on the runway to meet the flag-draped coffins of their children, nor available at Number 10. Rose Gentle, whose 19-year-old son, Gordon, is among the dead, had received a personally signed letter saying: 'I am afraid a meeting with you will not be possible.'
Another mother, Pauline Hickey, sent her own begging note, imploring Mr Blair to bring the troops home. 'We have lost 103 dedicated soldiers,' she wrote. 'They died in a war based on lies, for nothing.'
British and American armed services are never going to end the insurgency fomented by the war they fought. Most Iraqis say they want them gone. The test is whether than an exit is more likely to unleash civil war or forestall it. Iraq's elected leaders still mostly want troops to stay, but the case is getting weaker. My friend in Baghdad says coalition soldiers are a spectral presence, never at the trouble spots. So what are they there for?
In other respects, Britain has already walked away. Conflict, when it is discussed at all, revolves round us: our civil liberties, our freedom of speech, our rule of law, our consciences, our wish to wash our hands of a country about which we know very little, except that we never wanted to invade it in the first place.
Leave it to the Iraqis, people say. Is that all we have to offer to the thousands of women who mourn their husbands and children in the knowledge that three bitter years may only be a curtain-raiser on the real event?
Either Iraq will implode, in which case neighbour will slaughter neighbour and the impact will open all the fault lines of the Middle East. Or else we look for other solutions, frail as they may seem. Iran, which backs Shia Islam, may not want a civil war, knowing the most likely conflict is a three-way Shia clash between the movement's major factions and their militias. There is still scope for a government of national unity, if the Shia majority that won January's elections offers more power to the Sunni minority. Obviously, this is Iraq's business, but, given the gallons of blood on Britain's hands, it could at least look interested.
As the anniversary of Shock and Awe approaches, the clamour starts up again. In a flood of books, the impresarios and cheerleaders of war revise their views. Francis Fukuyama declares the end of neoconservatism. Paul Bremer, the US postwar administrator, relives a reign in which he ordered a flat tax of 15 per cent on a country with no taxes.
Here is another narrative. After the war, almost eight million children, many of them girls, went back to school. Attendance rose to 85 per cent at primary school, 4 per cent higher than the regional average, and Unicef was hopeful. Last Friday, the charity found out that 400 schools were being targeted by insurgents intent on slaughtering pupils and their teachers.
On Ministry of Education figures, 64 children have been murdered in the last four months and 57 injured. Remember them on Wednesday. They are the ones failed by military onslaught and by Tony Blair's God. They are also the reminder that those who seek a political solution for Iraq cannot afford to fail.
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