Adrian Hamilton: Iraq has no need of foreign dignitaries flying in

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The one thing Iraq could probably do without at the moment is Western leaders rushing in to acclaim its elections and pronounce a new dawn for the country, smothering them with the empty rhetoric of "steps to democracy", "control of their own affairs" and the "full support of the international community".

Of all its recent visitors, however, none could have been less welcome surely than the US Vice President, Dick Cheney, making his first trip at the beginning of this week. The prime mover of the invasion, Cheney could also be held responsible, with Donald Rumsfeld, for most of the mistakes of the occupation. The insecurity, the appalling state of the services, the lack of economic growth, can all fairly be blamed on the US administration and the extent to which Cheney himself ensured that it would be handled by the Pentagon and his man Rumsfeld.

If the majority of Iraqis now believe, as they seem to, that the invasion was a mistake, viewing the US (and with it Britain) as occupiers rather than liberators and calling for their early withdrawal as the essential step to their future, then the US Vice President can take a bow as the single individual most responsible for their woes.

This is more than just a matter of incompetence, of failure to plan properly for the post invasion. It is that Cheney drove, and persuaded an eager President to pursue, a whole agenda of which Iraq was to be only the beginning. To those who still believe (and Tony Blair continues to pull this one, although he of all people knows better) that the invasion was carried out to unseat a tyrant and improve the lot of ordinary Iraqis, one can only suggest they look up the speeches and works of Dick Cheney and his friends.

Saddam Hussein's tyranny no doubt made Bush and Blair confident that the invasion would be met by a grateful and co-operative population, but that wasn't the object of the exercise. Regime change in Iraq was meant to lead to a grand reshuffle of the Middle Eastern pack in which a whole train of enemies of the US (and Israel) such as Syria and Iran would be overthrown, and other regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia brought to heel.

The spread of democracy was adopted as the means, but the end would be a Middle East which would no longer represent a security threat to Israel and a source of trouble for the US. The power of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries would be smashed, and competing influences in the region would be removed.

Ahmed Chalabi, the Pentagon's favoured Iraqi politician at that stage, openly boasted to journalists during the invasion that the first act of the new government would be to recognise Israel. Washington's favoured think-tanks busily prepared plans showing how quickly Iraqi oil exports could be boosted and what effect it would have on the market.

Given these aims, it is hardly surprising that US policy in Iraq has been based - and is still based - on the absolute necessity to hold the country together, on the support of politicians such as Iyad Allawi sympathetic to the cause, and on a confrontational approach with Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran. Iraq could not fufil Washington's purposes if it fractured, accepted religious law or, worst of all, allowed Iran a role in its future.

Whatever else the Iraqi election may do, it represents the final end of this dream. One can hope that the post-election negotiations in Baghdad bring that poor country some respite and even long-term peace, although the provisional results are not optimistic. For the moment, the country is clearly divided on sectarian grounds and sees its future in distancing itself as sharply from its occupiers, including the UK, as possible.

Like it or not, the Shia dominance of the new parliament, and the new nation, will tilt the country towards Islamic law and leadership. Iraq will get closer to its neighbours and seek a future as part of the region rather than a radical force for change in it. That must mean greater Iranian influence (although it is easy to exaggerate Iran's religious ties with other Shia groups, given its history of Iranian-Arab enmity) and the development of Turkish-Kurdish ties.

It is now almost impossible to see Iraq trying to bust Opec - just the opposite would be its natural interest - or leading the way to a recognition of Israel. Nor is it very easy, given the events of the last two years, to envision Iraq acting as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Most of its neighbours are now distinctly chary of the process, given Iraq's experience, while America's moral position has been all but shredded by the revelations of prisoner abuse.

Nobody can know with any confidence how Iraq will develop. It may split completely (although I still doubt this). It may, like the former Soviet republics, descend to a sort of gangsterism, in which democracy exists formally at the centre but real power is devolved to groups or families around the country and/or a strongman emerges again to hold the centre. There is even a chance, given a bit of goodwill and the support of its neighbours, that it could inch its way to a better future for all.

But the only proper posture for Western politicians flying in to proclaim its progress is head bowed in apology for the mess they've made of it so far and the firm and absolute promise that they will keep out of its affairs from now on.