The recent confrontations in Iraq are informed by competing visions for the future of Iraq: On the one hand the US-backed coalition government accepts the vision of an Iraq that is essentially fragmented and weak, collaborating with and owing its existence to an open-ended occupation; on the other hand, a vision of Iraq that is united, strong, master of its own destiny and owner of its resources, and free.

The Bush administration supports the former; and is backing the government to forcibly eliminate the latter.

The testimony of Iraq war commander, General David Petraeus before Congress last month repeated the Bush administration's claim that the surge had produced progress. But the most important goal of the surge was to improve security enough to enable the government in Baghdad to realise the US-supported vision for Iraq.

This has not happened. As Senator Carl Levin noted during the hearings: "The main purpose of the surge - to provide Iraqi leaders breathing room to hammer out a political settlement - has not been achieved."

He blamed the "incompetence and excessively sectarian leadership" of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Incompetence and sectarianism have been on display to the embarrassment of the Bush administration.

During the March assault on Basra led by the US-supported Iraqi forces, more than 1,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen deserted their posts and refused to fight their fellow Shiites who comprise the Mahdi army, which controls much of Basra.

The failure to get Shiites to fight other Shiites in the name of loyalty to a government many Iraqis consider a puppet regime exposed the weakness of the Bush administration vision for Iraq.

The ostensible goal of the assault launched by the Al Maliki government, barricaded in Baghdad and visibly out of touch with the Iraqi people, was to demolish the military capabilities of the Moqtada Al Sadr nationalist Shiite movement and thus neutralise its potential political challenge in the provincial elections scheduled for October.

This would also have served the Bush administration well since the Al Sadr movement is fiercely opposed to the occupation and has been calling for a united Iraq free from occupation.

Al Maliki and his other Shiite partners in the government, on the other hand, cannot survive without the occupation and are willing to accept the dismemberment of Iraq into a more or less loosely federated state.

The carving up of Iraq seems to have been accepted in Washington. Last September, the US Senate voted in favour of dividing Iraq into separate autonomous regions.

Senator Joseph Biden, author of the bill, stated in a television programme that failure in Iraq was inevitable and that: "There is no possibility - no possibility - of a central government governing Iraq in any near term."

The Bush administration, which had dismissed the Bidden proposal as "as an unworkable and irresponsible prescription for breaking apart Iraq," issued no similar condemnation following the adoption of the bill by the Senate in September.

Basra is important to the future of Iraq, as its only port and as the repository of most of its oil reserves. The nationalist Shiites, along with the banned Iraqi trade unions are vehemently opposed to an oil law, being pushed by the Bush administration that would give multinational oil corporations unprecedented control over Iraqi oil.


Routing out the nationalist Shiites and smashing the trade unions would thus clear the way for the US-backed government to hold elections without real opposition and organise referenda that pave the way for a new Iraq: weak, occupied, with the essential levers of its economy privatised.

This seems acceptable to the ruling elites in the current Iraqi government dominated by merchant classes and former Iraqi exiles.

And it is this vision of the future of Iraq that the Iraqi nationalists, both Shiites and secular, strongly oppose and resist.

In an open letter to the Iraqi parliament, a group of 419 Iraqi academics, engineers and oil industry experts stated that "it is clear that the government is trying to implement one of the demands of the American occupation".

The draft oil law, the letter stated, "lays the foundation for a fresh plundering of Iraq's strategic wealth and its squandering by foreigners, backed by those coveting power in the regions, and by gangs of thieves and pillagers".

The incompetence of the US-backed government has been compounded by endemic corruption, and failure to meet the Iraqi people's basic needs.

Although Iraq has over $30 billion in reserves, it has done little to help the people.

A coalition of US and British NGOs stated in a recent letter to President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Al Maliki: "We write to express our deep concern that so little has been done by your governments to address the desperate plight of Iraqis who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of the ongoing conflict."

The Sadr movement has emerged, according to a recent report by Refugees International, as "the largest "unofficial" aid agency in the country... giving [the Iraqi people] money to pay rent... oil and food...[and] providing them with generators for electricity."

If Al Maliki or Bush really wanted democracy for Iraq they would be negotiating with the Al Sadr movement instead of trying to forcibly eliminate it.

Professor Adel Safty is author of 'From Camp David to the Gulf'. His latest book, 'Leadership and Democracy' is published in New York.