By Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 3, 2007
The U.S. intelligence community yesterday released a starkly pessimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq, warning that even if security improves, deepening sectarian divisions threaten to destroy the government and ultimately could lead to anarchy, partition or the emergence of a new dictatorship.
Citing "the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene," declassified judgments of a new National Intelligence Estimate predicted that Iraqi leaders will be "hard pressed" to reconcile over the next 18 months.
Despite the stepped-up training and U.S. support for Iraqi security forces -- major parts of the new Iraq strategy President Bush announced last month -- the estimate concluded that the Iraqi military will find it very difficult to carry out any new responsibilities or to operate independently against sectarian militias.
The administration struggled yesterday to put the best face on the NIE's assessment of a bleak situation that it says will sharply worsen unless "measurable" military and political progress is made.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the estimate "explains why the president concluded that a new approach and new strategy was required." He said Bush received extensive intelligence input before he announced his new plan, which includes the deployment of 21,500 additional U.S. combat troops to Iraq.
The NIE did not directly address the effect of sending more troops. But one section supported the administration's public insistence that U.S. forces are "an essential stabilizing element in Iraq." Their rapid withdrawal, the NIE said, "almost certainly would lead" to increased sectarian violence and make reconciliation more difficult.
The release of the estimate -- written over the past five months by the intelligence community's top Iraq analysts and approved by the heads of the CIA, the intelligence units at the Pentagon and those at the State and Justice departments -- comes on the eve of next week's Senate debate on the increase in U.S. forces in Iraq.
Key Democrats in Congress embraced the estimate to bolster their rejection of Bush's plan. "I do not see anything, so far, in the report that suggests the president's new plan is a winning strategy that protects America's national interest," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
The entire 90-page, classified NIE, titled "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead," was delivered to Congress yesterday morning after most members had left for the weekend.
Three and a half pages of "Key Judgments," unanimously agreed upon by the intelligence community, were released to the public. Although three dissents are included in the body of the classified document, they were described as tangential to the main conclusions. They deal with the extent to which the Syrian government controls the movement of foreign fighters across its border with Iraq and the extent and activities of al-Qaeda in Iran.
The tough and unequivocal wording reflects the determination within the intelligence community to prove its independence from political pressure. The community came under harsh criticism for its 2002 assessment of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, much of which proved to be inaccurate.
Though the administration has repeatedly asserted that al-Qaeda and Iranian operatives are responsible for provoking much of the violence in Iraq, the NIE played down their roles. Analysts studied what would happen if Iran were not a factor inside Iraq and concluded that, even though Iranian agents target U.S. troops, the absence of Tehran's agents would not appreciably alter the sectarian conflict.
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.