NIE Cites 'Uneven' Security Gains, Faults Iraqi Leaders

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 24, 2007

The U.S. intelligence community yesterday provided a mixed picture of the security situation in Iraq but cautioned that a drawdown of U.S. forces there and a scaled-back mission for the remaining U.S. troops "would erode security gains achieved thus far."

The addition of 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq over the past several months has so far brought "uneven improvements in Iraq's security situation," according to declassified key judgments of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, an update of a January assessment.

"The level of overall violence . . . remains high; Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled . . . and to date Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," the new report said.

When the Bush administration announced the troop increase, officials said that the aim was to provide additional security in Baghdad and elsewhere and to give "breathing space" to the Iraqi government to permit political reconciliation among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.

Yesterday's report, however, concluded that although the increase has temporarily halted the overall security decline of six months ago, political reconciliation has come to a "standstill," said a senior intelligence official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

The report attributed "recent security improvements in Iraq, including success against al Qaeda in Iraq" on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations by U.S. forces. "A change of mission that interrupts that synchronization would place security improvements at risk," it added. The reference was to shifting from counterinsurgency operations to supporting Iraqi forces.

The report for the first time examined a key part of the current U.S. effort -- the arming of Sunni tribal leaders who have joined in the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. It depicted the impact as limited, noting that although Sunni tribal resistance to al-Qaeda fighters has expanded, particularly in al-Anbar province, it "has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia."

The report notes that Shiite leaders are divided on the initiative. Some in Baghdad are concerned that newly armed Sunni tribes "will ultimately side with armed opponents of the government," while others have allowed Sunnis against al-Qaeda to join Interior and Defense Ministry forces.

Although the potential remains for these Sunni tribal groups fighting al-Qaeda to emerge as a basis for a "bottom-up" political accommodation, that will occur only "if the Iraqi government accepts and supports them," the report said.

If that does not happen, and U.S. forces draw down, the empowered local Sunni tribal groups "could become strong enough to join together to challenge the national government in some geographic areas," the senior intelligence official told reporters.

Al-Qaeda has taken major hits from armed Sunni tribes and the group's attacks on civilians have turned Iraqis against them, the report states. Al-Qaeda is still considered a threat, although, according to U.S. intelligence information that was not part of the declassified judgments, its actions represent a minor source of violence inside Iraq -- less than 10 percent of the approximately 1,000 incidents a week.

The report said that sectarian violence is continuing and attributes it to "population displacement." That was a reference to the ethnic cleansing of formerly mixed Shiite-Sunni areas that has helped bring an exodus of 2 million refugees and the displacement of almost as many within the country.

The burdens on Iraqi provincial governments and neighboring countries are "increasing the danger of destabilizing influences spreading across Iraq's borders over the next six to 12 months," the report says.

The report discloses that Syria has "cracked down" on some Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda, inside its borders because they pose a threat to its government, the senior intelligence official said. According to the report, however, Syria is also supporting Sunni groups inside Iraq not allied with al-Qaeda "in a bid to increase Syrian influence."

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