By Dafna Linzer and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 12, 2007
Iraq is at a violent and "precarious juncture," while al-Qaeda is significantly expanding its global reach, effectively immune to the loss of leaders in battle, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte told Congress yesterday. He also warned that the Taliban is mounting a vigorous insurgency in Afghanistan, that Pakistan has become a safe haven for top terrorists and that Iran's growing regional power is threatening Middle East stability.
In their annual worldwide threat assessment before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Negroponte and other top intelligence chiefs provided a bleak assessment of regions and conflicts at the center of President Bush's foreign policy agenda.
One day after Bush unveiled a plan to send more than 21,000 additional troops to work alongside Iraqi troops in an increasingly violent war, the head of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency said Iraqi forces could not combat the insurgency there.
Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples said Iraqi security forces have been thoroughly infiltrated by Shiite militias and "are presently unable to stand alone against Sunni insurgents, al-Qaeda in Iraq" or the militias themselves. Negroponte, who was ambassador to Iraq in 2004-05, said sectarian violence had become the greatest problem inside the country.
"The struggle among and within Iraqi communities over national identity and the distribution of power has eclipsed attacks by Iraqis against the coalition forces as the greatest impediment to Iraq's future as a peaceful, democratic and unified state," he said.
The assessments, and Bush's plan for additional troops, drew fierce criticism from the intelligence panel's Democratic chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.). Rockefeller said he is "extremely concerned that well-intentioned but misguided policies of the administration have increased the threats facing our nation, and hampered our ability to isolate and defeat al-Qaeda and other terrorists that seek to strike against the United States."
As they have for several years, the intelligence chiefs said al-Qaeda remains the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland. Negroponte claimed four U.S. successes in 2006 in what Bush has called the global war on terrorism, one being the U.S. military's killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite Zarqawi's death in June, violence in Iraq has increased substantially.
Maples said that al-Qaeda "has consistently recovered from losses of senior leadership," and that its "increasing cooperation with like-minded groups has improved its ability to facilitate, support and direct its objectives." Negroponte said the group's leaders have found a haven in secure locations in Pakistan.
He said a second major threat stemmed from nuclear weapons in the hands of U.S. enemies, with Iran and North Korea of greatest concern. But, he said, "Iran's influence is rising in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program."
He said Hezbollah in Lebanon, which receives considerable logistical and financial support from Iran, also poses a significant threat in the region. Despite its 34-day war with Israel last summer, "Hezbollah's leadership remains unscathed and probably has already replenished its weapons stockpiles with Iranian and Syrian assistance," Maples said.
Negroponte said stability in Iraq will depend in part on persuading Iran and Syria "to stop the flow of militants and munitions across their borders." For the first time, he said, "forty to 70 foreign fighters every month come over the Syrian border." Maples said foreign fighters account for less than 10 percent of insurgents and usually are recruited as suicide bombers.
The officials said Iran is providing Shiite militias with sophisticated anti-armor projectiles capable of penetrating U.S. armored vehicles. Negroponte added that Iran, in the past, supported the idea of a Shiite-dominated stable Iraq. But he now believes Tehran may be shifting to a more aggressive posture.