BEIRUT: In The New York Review of Books, veteran commentator Edward Sheehan wrote from Nablus recently about a Palestinian expectation that this summer would witness a simultaneous "explosion" in both Iraq and the occupied territories.
That amounts to an ironic comment on perhaps the most fundamental aspect of the Iraqi enterprise. For the Bush administration's neo- conservatives, overthrowing Saddam Hussein was to be nothing if not region-wide in ultimate purpose, "transforming" the entire Middle East, and bringing a final Arab-Israeli settlement.
The neo-cons were right about one thing: the Arab world, however fractious otherwise, is bound by strong psychological and cultural ties, and whatever happened in Iraq would profoundly affect the whole.
The trouble is that just as American success in Iraq would have made it likelier elsewhere, so the failure that now so ominously threatens will breed it elsewhere.
Not merely does the situation in Palestine get worse because of Iraq, so it does via the rebound in Iraq too. An American disaster in Iraq always had the built-in propensity to become a regional one.
For years it had been all but axiomatic that any Western intervention to bring down Saddam needed to be matched by an essentially pro-Palestinian in the Arab-Israeli conflict too.
The West had created Israel at the Palestinians' expense, and any realistic settlement had so far as possible to redress that historic injustice. Otherwise, all the war's official objectives would be dismissed out of court as just another blatant episode in the history of Western conquest and exploitation.
The neo-cons bought the axiom - but turned it on its head. Thanks to them the invasion of Iraq was really the supreme expression of US double standards in the region. In theory, the settlement was to come about through region-wide democratization and other blessings of America's "civilizing mission".
In practice, it would come about through a far higher level of external coercion than ever applied before, and by a yet more extravagant bias in Israel's favour. Even now, as he slips further into the Iraqi quagmire, Bush has put America openly behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's expansionist designs.
So while the Palestinians have their own, American-created reasons for stepped-up resistance, they naturally view that of the Iraqis as an integral part of the same anti-imperialist struggle.
More tellingly - and despite their widespread disillusionment with pan-Arabism, a Saddam legacy, from which the neo-cons had hoped to profit - the Iraqis have adopted Palestine as part of their own.
Now, in Fallujah, Sunni Muslims do battle in the name of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; in Najaf, the rebellious Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr calls himself the "striking Iraqi arm of Hezbollah and Hamas".
So in Iraq and Palestine, more obviously than anywhere else, the US has directly or indirectly empowered the very forces - Islamist and nationalist, populist, violent and fanatical - it came to quell, because that is where western interference has gone further than anywhere else.
But such forces are also the progeny of the moral and political bankruptcy of Arab governments, which - in addition to their strictly domestic shortcomings - have collectively failed in what should be the basic duty of any state, the defence of land, people and sovereignty against foreign assault and domination.
From that standpoint, the Islamists are simply non-state actors who have assumed that duty themselves, with jihad, terror and suicide as their means. A Palestinian scholar said: "They are profiting from a climate in which the Arab masses' greatest joy is to see the US invasion of Iraq becoming ever more painful."
Al Qaeda, the quintessential expression of pan-Arab, pan-Islamic outlook and action, is the most fearsome of those profiteers. America has turned Iraq into the perfect arena for conducting the pan-Islamic struggle against the Western infidel and the "apostate" Arab order.
Lebanon's Hezbollah is strictly local in origin and membership, but it enjoys greater region-wide prestige than Al Qaeda, because it confined itself to fighting - and besting - Israel in a classical guerrilla war which few but Israelis and America classified as terrorist. It now regards Iraqi resistance as accessory to its own.
Iraq cannot but hasten the day. Last week, breaking new ground, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that the struggle against Israel and America was one; he only awaited the call from his Iraqi brethren to join the latter.
An American failure will give also free rein to a whole other category of non-state forces. Some are Islamist too, and hostile to the US, but their defining characteristic is that they are ethnic or sectarian, and hostile to each other. The danger is anarchy and civil war, Lebanese-style.
In 1990 Arab regimes finally put out the Lebanese fire that threatened to burn them all. But Iraq will be a Lebanon writ large. So pivotal a country at inter-communal loggerheads with itself will infect a whole region replete with potential conflicts.
Kurdish disturbances in Syria, stirrings among Shias of the Gulf, are premonitory tremors of convulsions to come. The flow of oil and the security of Israel are fundamentals of US policy in the Middle East.
As its soaring price portends, the spread of the Iraqi contagion to the Gulf will pose a real threat. As for Israel, an American debacle will be very disturbing indeed.
Israelis already voice well-founded fears that the US public will come to blame them for pushing their government, via the neo-cons, into catastrophic misadventure, that America's will to stand by Israel whatever the cost to its interests in the Arab world will be grievously impaired, and that anti-American forces in the region will strive to make the cost unbearable.
How the likes of Mr Sharon would react, against Arabs and Palestinians, to the mere hint of abandonment by Israel's indispensable superpower patron will become one of the most pregnant questions in a Middle East where the worst is yet to come. -Dawn/The Guardian News Service.