Civil War in Iraq Near, Annan Says

By Robin Wright and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Iraq Study Group began two days of intensive behind-closed-doors deliberations yesterday as the White House conceded that Iraq has moved into a dangerous new phase of warfare requiring changes in strategy. In a sign of the growing global concern about Iraq's fate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for immediate steps to prevent the country from crumbling into all-out civil war.

"Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said when a reporter asked about the prospects of civil war in Iraq.

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters traveling to Estonia with President Bush: "Obviously, everyone would agree things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough." Washington must find ways to "adapt," he added.

Events over the past week, including the deadliest attacks since the war began in March 2003, have created a new sense of diplomatic urgency about finding a viable strategy to contain Iraq's violence and limit spillover damage across the region. The White House again resisted assertions that Iraq is now in a civil war, but that stance is increasingly hard to defend, according to analysts, diplomats and even some U.S. officials in private.

"While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war. The Iraqi government is making slow but sure progress on important issues that will help stop the violence and bring the country together," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said yesterday.

At least one Iraqi leader says otherwise. "It's worse than a civil war. In a civil war, you at least know which factions are fighting each other," lamented a senior member of Iraq's government in an interview a few hours after Johndroe's comments. "We don't even know that anymore. It's so bloody confused."

Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the damage that the conflict in Iraq is doing across the region that it basically summoned Vice President Cheney for talks over the weekend, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. The visit was originally portrayed as U.S. outreach to its oil-rich Arab ally.

In a reflection of the growing new dimension of civil strife, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that the militia of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has grown eightfold over the past year and now fields 40,000 to 60,000 men. That makes it more effective than the Iraqi government's army, the official indicated.

The Iraqi army has about 134,000 men, but about half are doing only stationary guard duty, the official said. Of the half that conduct operations, only about 10 battalions are effective -- well under 10,000 men.

Sadr is so powerful that if provincial elections were held now, he would sweep most of the south and also take Baghdad, said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

Iraq's prime minister "doesn't have any coercive powers of his own," he said, calling Maliki "beholden to Sadr." Maliki won the prime minister's job with backing from Sadr, whose political bloc holds 30 seats in parliament.

Addressing the sectarian problem by engaging Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran and Syria, is an idea gaining favor within the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is in the final phase of its eight-month search for a new policy. But the panel was still deeply divided over recommendations going into its meeting yesterday.

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