Everyone is using Iraq for their own purposes

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What now for democracy in the Middle East following the weekend elections in Iraq? To listen to President Bush in his state of the union address last night, you would think that the elections were a triumph of American arms that would now shine as a beacon throughout the region. Today Iraq. Tomorrow the world, or at least the Arab part of it.

Some exaggeration is understandable from a President whose support for the war amongst his own electorate is sliding fast. And no-one should gainsay either the real enthusiasm for the vote amongst Iraqis or the courage of those in Baghdad and the Sunni areas who did turn out to vote.

But what bedevils all discussion of Iraq and its role in the Middle East is the dogged determination of Western politicians and commentators to see it only in their own terms. A successful vote has to be acclaimed as a justification for invasion, just as continued violence has to be seen as the proof against it.

It's as if Iraqis must be happy to prove the case of one side - or be dying to prove the other. "Are you for or against democracy in Iraq?" was the particularly fatuous question posed by the columnist in one newspaper, which is about as silly as Tony Blair's suggestion that Charles Kennedy wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in power because he opposed the war.

If the elections last Sunday achieved anything outside the country, it should have been to stop this patronising egocentricity that sees the Middle East only though the prism of its own obsessions. It won't, of course, because politicians in the West have too much invested in their original policy towards the invasion to see it in any other terms.

Yet they must, at least if they want Iraq to develop successfully from this point on. Sunday's vote was not a full and fair election. How could it be, considering the violence, the lack of observers, the absence of live campaigning and the way in which it was skewed to those with access to the media or the mosque?

What it did express - inspiringly so in parts - was a profound desire for self-determination amongst ordinary Iraqis. Whether it was in reaction to the occupation, Saddam Hussein, British imperialism in the past or American self interest in the present doesn't really matter. Iraqis now want to determine their own future.

What we cannot know at this stage is whether they will pursue it through Iraqi nationalism or ethnic separatism; whether they want the continuation of the occupying forces; whether they can balance the competing pulls of different interests or end up in division. The Iraqis themselves don't know. These are things that have to be worked out in the power play of politics, democratically or otherwise.

The job of the outside world is to be as supportive as possible whilst interfering least. But it is here that the pronouncements coming out of Washington, and in some quarters here, worry most. The US, and with it Britain, did not invade Iraq to give the Iraqis self-determination. They invaded for a whole host of reasons to do with US interests: from oil to security to Israel and Washington's view on the need to reshape the Middle East. Democracy was seen the means to reform the region, not as an end in itself. Elections this year were not even part of the original plan. They were forced on the occupying powers by the pressure of the Shiah.

None of that thinking has gone away, not if you read President Bush's lips or listen to his new Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Iraq is seen - just as the two-state solution in Palestine - not as the objective but the route to other things. Democracy in Iraq will set off a chain reaction through Iraq, Syria and even America's allies in the Gulf which will remove Washington's (and Israel's) enemies, pump out the oil and wipe out support for international terrorism.

Maybe. It's a perfectly logical scenario viewed from afar. It's also true that the Middle East is ripe for change at the moment. All over the region regimes are at odds with their people. Any stone dropped in the pond will create large ripples. But it's also true that it's a view that takes almost no account of conditions as actually seen on the ground - that the majority of Iranians may actually want their government to have nuclear weapons, whether they want a change in regime or not; that most Egyptians would be as happy to end all relations with Israel as continue them; that the Syrian population is behind its government in its refusal to compromise on water rights and the Golan Heights; and that Saudi Arabians want to see the US out of its oil as well as its bases.

Most Arab populations see themselves humiliated in their relations with the West. Self-determination for them means self-assertion. And Iraq, for them, is not some great experiment in "democracy" or any other abstract constitutional precept. It is about whether a Middle Eastern state will be allowed to develop without interference from the outside, treating with its neighbours according to its own interests and not the strategic plans of others, handling its oil development and its revenues as it sees fit and producing the constitution and administrations that reflect its majority view.