, In the centre of the rollicking Iraqi border town of Safwan, where dusty small boys dodge cars and lorries – and the odd slap from overheated adults – to offer tins of Pepsi for sale and Kuwaiti mobile phones for hire, lives a man who has inflicted his own private joke on Saddam Hussein's regime.
On a road lined with shabby tents and shacks, squatted by tea sellers, phone merchants and car salesmen, Risan al-Mana occupied the raised brick platform where Ba'ath party leaders used to take the salutes of the coerced and terrified “volunteer” brigades. Then he turned it into a sales office for a dubious trade in used cars from Kuwait. So much for Saddam, and his all-powerful Ba'ath party, Mr al-Mana laughed. They were consigned to the scrapheap of history.

So was the old Safwan, or at least the version I visited a few weeks before the war that would end Saddam's brutal career. The town, a sad and flyblown place, had been sinking into lethargy for 12 years, ever since the border was closed after the Kuwait war. It had one teahouse, where the most vigorous motion was the clicking of domino tiles. The town's inhabitants, under closer than usual surveillance because they lived in the border area, were the most terrified people I had ever seen, frozen into silence by the sight of my government minder.

By the time I returned to Safwan it was nearly six months since US forces had roared across the border from Kuwait, and I was no longer required to travel with a minder. From the border towns of Safwan and Umm Qasr, the US columns had advanced north along the Euphrates river, rising from the flat, featureless desert to the isolated stands of palm trees and the fertile plains before curving eastwards to Baghdad. On April 9, they entered the capital's Firdowz Square, where a crowd looped a noose around a statue of Saddam and broke it off at the knees.

The moment, recorded by a legion of cameras, came to symbolise the end of the regime. But what has risen in its place? Are the forces which now occupy and control Iraq building the foundations of the modern state they promised, or laying the foundations for another version of the old, repressive regime? My route, as I retraced the road to Saddam's ruin, took me through the southern heartland of the Shias, the despised and neglected majority of Iraq. It crossed sectors controlled by British, American, Italian, Romanian, Dutch, Bulgarian and Polish troops. It led past charred and contorted Iraqi army vehicles sinking into the sands, government buildings and army installations reduced to powder. But there was a more fundamental destruction.

Iraq under the US-led occupation is a fearful, lawless and broken place, where murder rates have rocketed, 80% of workers are idle and hospital managers despair at shortages of IV sets and basic antibiotics. Police are seen as thugs and thieves, and the American and British forces as distant rulers, more concerned with protecting their troops than providing security to ordinary Iraqis. The governing council they created is simply irrelevant. A mile away from one of the richest oilfields on earth, the queues at petrol stations stretch for hours. “We completely underestimated how broken this system was,” says Andrew Alderson, the financial officer of the British-led administration in Basra.

Gratitude at having been freed from Saddam has given way to resentment and mistrust in a part of Iraq that could never remotely be considered as Ba'ath country. Compared with Baghdad, the south is an occupation success story. Apart from Basra, where there have been sporadic attacks on British forces, the foreign troops in the south operate in relative security.

Thankful

None of the towns has a night curfew and, aside from in Basra, there was relatively little looting at the end of the war. In Nassiriya, the first town in Iraq with 24-hour electricity, Italian soldiers patrol without helmets. There has never been an attack on US forces there.

And for good reason. Almost every person I met along the way had had a member of their immediate family jailed or executed by the regime, or had been jailed themselves. Some were exiled, but returned in the wake of the US invasion with their hopes for a new Iraq.

All were thankful to be rid of Saddam, but months after that cataclysmic event they detect few dividends from the occupation. “You have done very little for the people of Iraq,” says Salaam Daoud Salaam, an English teacher in Basra. “Yes, you removed that man from power – a very good thing. But what about the rest? We haven't felt that meaning of liberty. It lasted just for a few days, but then our suffering is coming back.”

Benefits, when they did arrive – a partial restoration of electricity, and a gradual reduction in crime – were seen as miserly and overdue, a betrayal of the promises made by Britain and America to build a new Iraq, prosperous, modern, and free.

Saddam's Republic of Fear, the mechanism of iron controls that held the state together, was gone, but its replacement is a violent chaos. The void created by the defeat of Saddam's highly centralised one-party regime has empowered religious extremists, political gangs, tribal chieftains, criminals and speculators, the venal and the corrupt. These are the men profiting in the new Iraq. The knock at the door at night is no longer a member of Saddam's secret police, but it could very well be an armed robber, an enforcer from a political faction, or an enemy intent on revenge.

For men with strong nerves, like Mr Mana and his nephew, Yusuf al-Ghanem, there is still money to be made. One of the features of the new Iraq is the porosity of its borders, not only with Kuwait, but Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, and the explosion of smuggling: sheep and stolen oil to Kuwait, drugs from Iran, and guns and extremists from several directions. Mr Mana has exploited the postwar chaos to do a roaring trade in used cars from Kuwait.

Most of his models are from the 1980s. A Chevrolet Caprice – the car of choice for Iraqis – sells for perhaps $800 (