The Saddam-al Qaeda connection has fizzled and no nuclear, biological or chemical weapons have been unearthed in post-invasion Iraq. So the Bush administration’s fallback, ex post facto rationale for invading Iraq is that the country is better off without Saddam. But the U.S.-backed Iraqi government seems to be ruling more like Saddam everyday.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has recently ordered the arrest of political opponents, closed a prominent media outlet reporting stories that were embarrassing to the Iraqi government, and taken up aggressive tactics vis-a-vis the opposition guerrillas, including reinstating the death penalty against them.

After the cosmetic changeover of power from the U.S. occupation to a hand-picked Iraqi Prime Minister, Allawi’s behavior is predictable. With an Iraqi glove now on the fist of U.S. power, Iraqis can get away with much harsher policies toward other Iraqis than could a foreign occupier—especially the leader of the free world, which has billed its invasion as bringing democracy to an autocratic country. Thus, the U.S. government, as it has done so many times during the Cold War and after, is masking with high flying democratic rhetoric the substitution of an unfriendly dictator with a friendly one.

The Iraqi government has ordered the arrest of political opponents Ahmed Chalabi and his nephew Salem, who is leading the prosecution of Saddam. They were originally darlings of the Pentagon and American neo-conservatives but have since fallen out of favor with the Bush administration. The Chalabis did too much consorting with the theocrats in Iran for U.S. authorities to stomach.

In another Saddam-like move, Allawi has closed the Iraq office of Al Jazeera, the pan-Arabic television network, for broadcasting images that embarrassed the Iraqi government. Apparently, the network’s coverage was placing too much emphasis on the rampant kidnappings that have recently paralyzed Iraq.

Finally, Allawi is attempting to show that he will be aggressive against the opposition guerrillas. He has vowed that the fierce offensive in the holy city of Najaf by U.S. troops and Iraqi security forces against the militia of cleric Moktada al-Sadr would continue with no cease fire. Given the sorry state of the Iraqi security forces, the U.S. military is really the one that has decided that no quarter will be given to the insurgents.

And the aggressive tactics will continue even after guerrillas are captured. After the invasion, to signal that a new benevolent era had arrived in Iraq, the U.S. occupation authority under L. Paul Bremer III suspended the death penalty. Of course, “suspended” is the key word. A suspension, rather than elimination, would allow a future Iraqi government to bring the ultimate penalty back if things got rough. Things got rough.

Allawi has cast the death penalty so widely that it covers almost any type of guerrilla attack. The death penalty can be applied to Iraqis who engage in ambushes, hijacking, kidnapping, attacks on infrastructure and murder. Of course, killing someone when defending the home country from an unprovoked and unnecessary foreign invasion and occupation is defined as murder. Even in World War II when the stakes were much higher, the United States did not execute captured German or Japanese soldiers for defending their homeland. In fact, after the war, the vast majority of them were given their freedom. Furthermore, although Iraqi officials have claimed that the list of capital offenses excludes any possibility that the death penalty will again be used for political reasons, the ultimate sentence can be meted out for the vague offense of “endangering national security.” Such Orwellian wording has to make Iraqis—accustomed to Saddam’s terror—very nervous about the direction the new Allawi government is heading.

Americans should be nervous too. One of the many emerging parallels between the current Mesopotamian mess and the Vietnam War is the use of autocratic tactics by U.S.-installed puppet governments that lacked popular legitimacy. That strategy failed in Vietnam and it is likely to fail in Iraq. The only way out for the United States is to allow Iraqis to have genuine self-determination soon.