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Bleak Iraq Report Is Sent to Congress

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the Iraq report
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the Iraq report "explains why the president concluded that a . . . new strategy was required." (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)

The administration postponed plans to present its evidence of Iranian involvement, originally scheduled for last Wednesday. Hadley said yesterday that "the truth is, quite frankly, we thought the briefing overstated" Iran's role. "We sent it back to get it narrowed and focused on the facts."

But in a muted criticism of the NIE, Hadley said it failed to consider Iran's negative impact on the entire Middle East.

The NIE called Iran, along with al-Qaeda and other extremist groups, "accelerants" whose activities intensify the conflict. But Iran and Iraq's other neighbors, it said, are "not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics."

The sectarian nature of the fighting, along with the "ethno-sectarian mobilization and population displacements," the estimate said, is consistent with the definition of "civil war." But it said the term "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widely criminally motivated violence."

During a White House briefing, Hadley was pressed to reconcile that assessment with the president's refusal to describe the Iraq situation as a civil war. "I think I can't do better than the description of the facts on the ground that is in the NIE, with which we agree, and that says this is a complex, difficult situation," Hadley said. "And that's what it is."

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, noting that he had not read the report, said he agreed with Hadley that "the words 'civil war' oversimplify a very complex situation." Gates said he was encouraged that Iraqi military units assigned to partner with U.S. forces in stepped-up operations in Baghdad are already arriving in the capital. But he acknowledged that the units have not reported with full strength, adding that "55 percent is probably not good enough."

The NIE analyzed the sharp differences among sectarian groups in Iraq, which it said are "driving the current trajectory of the country's security and political evolution."

Despite their majority status, the Shiites who now dominate the government remain "deeply insecure" after decades under the brutal control of Hussein and his Sunni regime, the NIE said. Their insecurity "leads the Shia to mistrust U.S. efforts to reconcile Iraqi sects and reinforces their unwillingness to engage with the Sunnis on a variety of issues," the estimate said.

Many Sunnis "remain unwilling to accept their minority status," the NIE continued, "believe the central government is illegitimate and incompetent, and are convinced that Shia dominance will increase Iranian influence over Iraq."

The Kurds, the country's third major group, "are moving systematically to increase their control" over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and are looking to a constitutionally required referendum to take place no later than the end of this year, the NIE said. The voting will deal with the incorporation of the city within the Kurds' regional border. Such a move, the estimate said, "could prompt Turkey to launch a military incursion."

Without mentioning Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, by name, the estimate noted that "the absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects for reconciliation."

It noted that some developments -- including broader Sunni acceptance of the current government, Shiite and Kurdish concessions and enhanced resources for local tribal and religious groups -- " could" help reverse the negative trends.

On the other hand, the NIE concluded, "a number of identifiable internal security and political triggering events . . . have the potential to convulse severely Iraq's security environment" and could "spark an abrupt increase in communal and insurgent violence and shift Iraq's trajectory from gradual decline to rapid deterioration."

Those events include sustained mass sectarian killing, the assassination of major political and religious leaders, and a complete Sunni defection from the government. Any one of the three, the estimate said, could result in "chaos leading to partition . . . emergence of a Shia strongman . . . [or] anarchic fragmentation of power."

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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