IN ONE of these carefully staged media events so typical of this global 'war on terrorism', George W Bush used the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to announce victory in Iraq on May Day. Actually, he didn't use the word 'victory'.
Under international law that would have required the United States and Britain to free prisoners of war and assume various duties as the occupiers of Iraq that the administration wants to evade.
So Bush simply said that 'major combat operations in Iraq have ended'. He went on to claim, 'We've removed an ally of Al Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain - no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the Iraqi regime is no more.'
As Goebbels said, the big lies are the best. No one has been able to come up with evidence that Saddam Hussein was 'an ally of Al Qaida'. And the reason why no one is going to get any weapons of mass destruction is because there probably aren't any, as a senior US official told last Saturday's Financial Times.
But behind the lies and triumphalism, the US faces very serious problems in Iraq. Bush's spin doctors presumably chose a carrier returned from the Gulf symbolically to underline their claim not to be occupying Iraq.
'Our coalition will stay until our work is done,' Bush said. 'Then we will leave, and leave behind a free Iraq.' But in fact the administration is in a cleft stick. The US rulers want to control Iraq for both economic and strategic reasons. The economic motive is obvious - Iraq's oil.
Strategically Iraq is important as well. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced last week during a visit to the Gulf that most US forces will pull out of Saudi Arabia. This does not mark a US military retreat from the region. Ever since he took over the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has wanted to abandon the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia and relocate to Qatar.
In the eyes of Washington's neo-conservatives Saudi Arabia has become an unreliable ally. Removing US troops from there will also deprive Osama Bin Laden of one of his main grievances.
But the Pentagon wants other bases in the region. Four have apparently been earmarked in Iraq that would allow the US to put pressure on Syria or Iran, or indeed any other neighbouring state. But holding onto Iraq won't be easy. The killing of 15 people by US paratroopers in Fallujah last week underlines the danger of a low intensity war developing between the Iraqi people and their 'liberators'.
The precedent of Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon after the 1982 war must be beginning to haunt Washington. The steady pinprick of military casualties - often by suicide bombings - forced the Israel Defence Force gradually to withdraw and finally to pull out altogether. There are family and other links connecting the Shia Muslim leaders in southern Iraq with Hizbollah, the Islamist movement whose guerrillas drove Israel out of Lebanon.
The sheer strength of Shia organisation that has emerged publicly since Saddam's fall is another problem facing the US. Rumsfeld said a fortnight ago, 'A regime like that in Iran is not compatible with our vision for Iraq.'
This remark highlighted the hypocrisy of Bush's promises of 'liberty', but it also underlined the danger of conflict between the US and Iraq's Shia majority. It's a sign of the difficulties that a diplomat, Paul Bremer, has been appointed over Jay Garner, the US ex-general originally chosen to run Iraq.
No wonder then that Rumseld - the hammer of 'Old Europe' -has started talking about a 'multinational stabilisation force' in Iraq, and even a role for the United Nations. Rumsfeld hates 'nation building' - the messy business of managing impoverished and divided countries whose problems have been made worse by US military action.
So let the Europeans take on the job - and take the casualties, while elite US units do the glamorous stuff. This is what has happened in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But France and Russia in particular won't agree to help get America's chestnuts out of the fire for nothing.
It's probably no coincidence that the US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, has said that Washington may honour some of the contracts that Saddam made under the oil for food programme. Russia stands especially to gain from these contracts.
The occupation of Iraq is likely to deliver Rumsfeld and the neo-conservatives in Washington some very harsh lessons about the limits of American power.