WASHINGTON — Three years after the United States invaded Iraq in pursuit of a freer, more stable Middle East, the country's deepening ethnic conflict is spreading tension across Iraq's borders, fueling terrorism and nurturing gloom about the future.
President Bush cited Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to international terrorism—neither of which turned out to exist—when he ordered a pre-emptive war that began March 19, 2003. He predicted payoffs for the wider Middle East: spreading democracy, deterred enemies, more secure oil flows, a less hostile environment for Israel.
None of that has happened, at least not yet.
Instead, said officials and analysts in the United States, Arab countries, Israel and Europe, the invasion has produced a vortex of unintended consequences.
Militancy is on the rise. Terrorists are using Iraq as a training base and potential launch pad for attacks elsewhere, according to U.S. officials and documents. Democratic reform remains largely stymied.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps, and especially the Reserves and National Guard, are feeling the strain of repeated deployments. Public support for the war is declining in America and almost nonexistent elsewhere. The war has cost more than 2,300 American lives, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates that its total financial cost may exceed $500 billion.
"The region is pushed further toward extremism," said Mohamed el Sayed Said, the deputy director of the Cairo-based Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The Bush administration was warned that it's moving into an area of shifting sand. ... This is a very complex region with legacies of sectarian violence and religious strife."
In Jordan to the west, Saudi Arabia to the south and Turkey to the north — even in Israel — U.S. allies are voicing growing concern that Iraq's chaos could seep across their borders and infect them.
The president has said the Middle East was anything but stable before the invasion. Success in Iraq will leave the region better off and America safer, Bush said Monday in the first of three speeches to mark the anniversary.
"By helping Iraqis build a democracy, we will inspire reformers across the Middle East. And by helping Iraqis build a democracy, we'll bring hope to a troubled region, and this will make America more secure in the long term," he said.
Yet, so far at least, the reality in the Middle East is much different:
Shortly after last month's bombing of a sacred Shiite Muslim mosque in Samarra, Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Persian Gulf leaders in the United Arab Emirates. Afterward, she said they'd told her they were worried that those who are provoking sectarian tension in Iraq "might try and stoke sectarian tensions in other parts of the region."
Last September, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, warned that civil war in Iraq could drag in Iran, Turkey, the Kurds and Arabs.
Iraq's Arab neighbors, dominated by Sunni Muslims, have watched in horror as Shiites gain political ascendancy in Iraq. So far they've supported Iraq's unity, fearing that the country's breakup could set off a regionwide scramble.
But a report last month by the private International Crisis Group warned that that could change if religious and ethnic tensions or Shiite power continues to grow.
"Increased sectarian polarization in Iraq will be viewed menacingly by neighboring states, and could draw them into Iraq and hasten its break-up, a development in which, ironically, they have no interest," the report said.
Judith Yaphe, a Persian Gulf specialist at the National Defense University, said Iraq's neighbors increasingly feared that the terrorism, drugs, crime and the weakening of central power in Iraq would spill across the country's borders.
Counterterrorism experts and U.S. government documents seen by Knight Ridder say there are signs that terrorist-recruitment networks created to funnel foreign insurgents into Iraq are being "reversed," with battle-trained militants flowing out of the country to try to destabilize other nations.
In November, suicide bombers apparently under orders from Iraq-based terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi killed at least 60 people in coordinated attacks on luxury hotels in Jordan's capital, Amman.
Last month, would-be bombers were stopped during an attack on the world's largest oil-processing plant, in Saudi Arabia.
How much regional terrorism is due to the invasion itself is open to debate. Some experts say Iraq is beginning to resemble Afghanistan in the 1980s—a place for jihadists to rally and confront a superpower.
Afghanistan "was the ultimate extremist-networking opportunity. I think Iraq is serving that same purpose," said Paul Pillar, who retired last year as the U.S. intelligence community's top analyst on the Middle East and South Asia.
Few of Iraq's neighbors see a model in its bloodshed and chaos.
"Who could possibly look at anything in Iraq and think, `I want some of that'?" said Yusuf Kanli, the editor of the Turkish Daily News.
The Bush administration has pushed Middle East dictators to open up, leading to small signs of political liberalization. Yet authoritarian regimes continue to hoard power, brutally quashing opponents and claiming that the only alternatives are an Islamic takeover or the kind of chaos seen in Iraq.
In the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Egypt, voters have turned out in large numbers to support the militant group Hamas, Hezbollah guerrillas and the conservative Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively.
"War has increased the wave of Islamism," said Essam el Erian, a spokesman for the influential Muslim Brotherhood, which is now Egypt's leading opposition force.
In the wake of Hamas' victory, the United States is widely perceived to have muted its pro-democracy rhetoric, leading to a sense that American support for democracy is fickle.
The United States' moral authority to condemn human rights abuses has been damaged by revelations of abuse in American-run detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"If they were serious about democracy, they wouldn't detain people in Guantanamo for life without trial," said Haitham Maleh, a Damascus lawyer who's one of the most outspoken opponents of the Syrian regime. "The U.S. is aggressive, hostile and has nothing to do with human rights."
In Israel, which has learned some painful lessons after nearly 40 years as an occupying power, leaders have watched the deteriorating situation in Iraq with a mix of remorse and dread.
Although Israel tacitly backed the effort to oust Saddam and some of its American allies urged the U.S. to attack, there's now broad, if quiet, criticism of the way the United States has handled the postwar period.
Gerald Steinberg, senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said the region probably was better off without Saddam, but he criticized the United States for basing its policy more on faith than reality.
"The assumption that just being there and talking about democracy and elections would work was naive," he said.
Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations, said the war had fueled the spread of al-Qaida in the Middle East.
The prospect of al-Qaida migrating west out of Iraq into Jordan and the Palestinian territories has given hawkish Israelis an opening to argue that Israel must hold on to Palestinian land in the West Bank as a buffer.
Iran has tried to use the war to extend its influence.
"Iran so far clearly is benefiting from events in Iraq, where friendly parties have come to power, and the U.S. finds itself embroiled," the International Crisis Group report said.
Iran appears to be banking that the United States is too tied up in Iraq to confront it militarily over its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Still, others are worried.
"There is this overwhelming gloom about a possible strike against Iran," said Prince Hassan of Jordan. "The confrontational mode is the only show in town."
Iraq has the world's second-largest known oil reserves. Securing energy supplies was an implicit goal of the invasion, and top U.S. officials predicted that Iraq could pay for its own reconstruction.
Instead, due to insurgent attacks and the dislocations of war, Iraq's 2005 oil production was below prewar levels, according to Energy Department figures. Crude-oil prices are near record highs and markets are tight.
Iraq's instability is a "fiasco" that has transformed the country "from being an important exporter of crude oil and refined products to being an importer of refined products," said Labib Kamhawi, the president of the Jordanian petrochemical, oil and gas consulting firm Cessco.
(Allam reported from Cairo, Egypt. Knight Ridder correspondents Dion Nissenbaum in Israel, Matthew Schofield in Turkey and special correspondent Miret el Naggar in Cairo contributed to this report.)