Call it, in a paraphrase of Lord Alfred Douglas, the messy affair in Iraq that dare not speak its name: debacle. The term here, whichever way you choose to play around with it, translates as digging a hole for yourself and, after a prideful display of your ability to shock and awe, refusing to acknowledge what pride often goeth before.

Last week, Alberto Fernandez, director of the office of public diplomacy in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, was compelled by his superiors to retract, and apologise contritely for, a statement he had made earlier in an interview on Al Jazeera in which he claimed that the United States, by going to war in Iraq, had acted with "arrogance and stupidity".

Clearly, Fernandez was not just articulating the sentiment of anti-war commentators, who from the outset had warned a clueless administration about the perils of the "day after", of the futility of trying to introduce Jeffersonian democracy to an ancient land whose social contradictions and cultural values Americans knew little about, but the sentiment of most people in the Arab world who now, after three years of continued conflict, fear the worst for Iraq.

"We are not looking for an exit strategy," Vice-President Dick Cheney told Time magazine recently. "We're looking for victory."

Stirring words that define the American administration's policy to "stay the course", not to "cut and run". But what would the consequences be for Iraq, indeed for the entire Arab world, if that policy were to be embodied in "stay and fail"?

The depth of the crisis in Iraq was suggested by a study released recently by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, in collaboration with the Al Mustansariah University in Baghdad, which estimated the death toll since the US invasion in March 2003 at 655,000.

Add to that the insecurity that ordinary Iraqis confront daily, with sectarian mayhem, wanton murder, arbitrary kidnappings, drive-by shootings, bombings in market places, attacks on houses of worship and news about open corruption in high places, with the most brazen example being the case, revealed in a 60 Minutes television report last Sunday, of the theft by former Defence Ministry officials, through fraudulent arms deals, of up to $800 million, out of a total of $1.2 billion meant to equip the Iraqi Army.

All that doesn't grab your attention because you have long since ceased to turn away in nauseated disbelief at the tragic mess in Iraq? Well, then, consider the apocalypse, the partition of the country.

In their public debate, Americans are now speaking openly of splitting that ancient land between the Tigris and the Euphrates into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities, or statelets. The creation of modern-day Iraq by the British in the 1920s was a mistake to begin with, they argue.

Reversal of a dream

Were that to happen, it would be a disaster, not just for Iraq, but for the entire Arab world. For not only would the dismemberment of a major Arab country reverberate in the entire region, but it would represent a reversal, in these post-colonial times, of the dream of reason that had animated our national paradigm all these years.

A whole generation of Arabs have grown up over the last half century believing nothing was more rooted in their collective psyche, or more closely related to their quest for meaning, than the call for the unity of the Arab states.

Partitioning Iraq would, in effect, take Arabs back to the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, when colonial overlords whimsically determined the Arab people's national fate behind their back and against their pleas.

You would have to be an outright optimist or gifted with self-deception to believe that events in Iraq, events of such magnitude, will not, systemically, affect countries elsewhere in the region.

If Shiites, say, can form their own state in southern Iraq, what is there not to embolden their fellow Shiites to do the same in northern Saudi Arabia? Why not the Druze in Lebanon, the Kurds in Syria, the Palestinians in Jordan?

But beyond the geopolitics of it all, there is the gut-wrenching, painful experience of breaking up a country like Iraq, a country whose people's lives had been interwoven for generations, and whose shared culture had stood in a vital, reciprocal relationship to the contours of their lives, their felt reality and national identity.

During the buildup to war, the questions American commentators raised in the media were never easy to answer, and the manner in which the country engaged in self-assessment seemed wholly inadequate to the scale of what it was about to get into.

When, however, American war strategists, particularly those ambitious neoconservatives among them, sent the US military to invade, occupy and restructure Iraq, their plans spanned a whole gamut of villainy. If partitioning Iraq is part of that scheme, it cannot, and should not be allowed to, go unchallenged.

Fawaz Turki is a veteran journalist, lecturer and author of several books.