By Robert Fisk THE INDEPENDENT (London, UK) February 12 1998

I have been reminded of some familiar odours these past few days. The first is the terrible, nauseous stench I endured for hours on the overnight train from Ahwaz to Tehran back in the Eighties, as I shared a carriage with dozens of young Iranian soldiers. All of them were coughing up Saddam Hussein's poisons from their lungs into blood-red swabs and bandages. And the mustard gas that was slowly killing them permeated the whole great 20-carriage train as it thundered up from the desert battlefields of the first Gulf War, through the mountains to the city where almost all these men would soon die and be buried. After only an hour into the journey, I was forced to throw open the carriage window to avoid vomiting.

No sooner had I filed a series of reports to London on this new and terrible war crime of Saddam Hussein than a British diplomat, lunching with one of my editors in London, remarked that "Bob doesn't seem to understand the situation." True, he said, gas was a terrible weapon. But Saddam was fighting the West's war against Iranian fundamentalism - a danger which might set the whole Middle East ablaze and which could threaten the entire world. Wasn't The Times - the paper for which I then worked - putting a little too much emphasis on Saddam's sins? So the other smell I recall this week is the stink of hypocrisy when - in 1990 - the world's statesmen began to whip their people into line for war against the man they had supported in his conflict against Iran. The French had sold Saddam Mirage jets. The Germans had provided him with the gas that had me almost wretching on the train from Ahwaz. The Americans had sold him helicopters for spraying crops with pesticide (the "crops", of course, being human beings). The British gave Saddam bailey bridges. And I later met the Cologne arms dealer who flew from the Pentagon to Baghdad with US satellite photos of the Iranian front lines - to help Saddam kill more Iranians.

And oddly enough, whenever I mentioned this back in 1990, after Saddam had invaded Kuwait, I was admonished by diplomats. There's no point in dwelling on the past, I was told. The only way to deal with Saddam now was war. Did I have any better ideas? And within a few weeks, Saddam - and yes, he is a venal, cruel, wicked, evil man - was being transformed into the Hitler of Iraq, just as the Israelis had called Yasser Arafat the Hitler of Beirut in 1982, and just as Eden has called Nasser the Mussolini of the Nile in 1956. Normally quite rational individuals became cheerleaders for war, shouting hysterically when I suggested that the results of this war might not quite match the expectations. Serious newspapers began to advocate the occupation of Baghdad and a war crimes trial for Saddam.

And once that battle was over and Saddam was expelled from Kuwait, we were told by our leaders that Saddam had been "defanged". Our smart bombs and guided missiles had destroyed his army, our Patriot missiles had protected us from his Scuds - and at little cost to the Western alliance. Then it turned out that all this was untrue. But at least we never claimed then that he was capable of harming more than the Middle East. So what madness is seizing Messrs Clinton and Blair today? After seven years of inspections - seven years, for heaven's sake - UN arms inspectors have not been able to find all of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Thousands were dying of malnutrition and lack of medicine, a million if you believe some UN officials. Mass funerals for babies (70 in one cortege on the last count) made their way through Baghdad. Propaganda for the odious Saddam, of course; but few thought the coffins were empty. And then Saddam - shrewdly appreciating that America's craven surrender to Israel's settlement building had convinced Arab leaders that the "peace process" was a betrayal of the Palestinians - decided to ban the UN inspectors from his palaces.

And what happened? Our masters informed us that Saddam was even worse than he was before we beat him the first time. Far from just threatening the oil rich Gulf, the chief UN inspector informed us that the Iraqis had enough anthrax "to wipe out Tel Aviv" (note the city he chose - not Dhahran or Riyadh but Tel Aviv, although all three had been rocketed in 1991). And then our own trustworthy Foreign Office announced that Saddam now posed a threat to "the whole world". In Washington, Mr. Blair repeated this, saying that he had enough weapons "to wipe out the world's population".

The whole world? Is this true? In Beirut these past few days, I have been trying to remember where I last heard these words. It took me some time before I recalled where. I last read them when I was at school, reading the Eagle comic, wherein a space hero called Dan Dare - a kind of 1950s version of Tom Cruise - would regularly do battle with the Mekon, a green and ectoplasmic alien creature who had the ability to wipe out the entire world (unless he was first destroyed/defanged/put back into his box or whatever). Has it really descended to this? The Middle East, with all its complexities and dangers and religious tension - yes, and its evils - is being turned into a comic strip in which Dan Dare will launch his space-age high-tech at the Mekon of Baghdad.

Perhaps the American public and its pro-Israeli representatives in Congress and the Senate accept this nonsense? But do we, whose Prime Minister is chanting all this at Bill Clinton's side? British readers should be aware of what US columnists are demanding. In The New York Times, William Safire has been recommending "sustained bombing of all suspected weaponry sites, including palaces occupied by civilians used as hostages", while in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen has been saying of Saddam: "He is not . a mole but a rat. It would be best to exterminate him ." And last weekend, when I recalled the 1991 war and its rhetoric to an American radio commentator, I heard the same weary response. "Let's not talk about the past, Bob. What do we do now?" Well, the world might, after all, demand that all Middle Eastern states apply all UN security council resolutions - which include an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land as well as the disarming of Saddam Hussein. It could insist that within five years, all weapons of mass destruction in the region - not just Iraqi weapons but Syrian missiles and Israeli nuclear weapons and possible Iranian rockets - be destroyed. It could offer a real peace in the Middle East, based on human rights, justice and a Palestinian homeland.

But no, like Dan Dare we prefer to do battle with monsters. And we are beating the old 1991 drums of war, our claims so preposterous that they bury the real viciousness of the real Saddam. For war is not primarily about victory or defeat. It is about death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit. And if we really are going to participate in this obscenity again, is it not possible to do so with the humility of men who know what we are doing?