NIE: Iraq 'Unable to Govern' Itself Effectively

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 2:59 PM

Iraq remains "unable to govern" itself effectively and hobbled by the absence of strong leadership, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's inability to broker political accord continues to make him vulnerable, according to a new U.S. intelligence report released today.

Seven months after President Bush ordered more U.S. troops to the country, "there have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq's security situation," the report concludes. . If U.S. forces continue their current strategy, security "will continue to improve modestly" over the next six to 12 months but violence will remain high and political reconciliation will remain elusive.

The report , determined that while some Iraqi security forces "have performed adequately," overall they "have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent" of U.S. forces in multiple locations on a sustained basis.

If U.S. troops were to downscale their mission to supporting Iraqi security forces and hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda, the report contends that move "would erode security gains achieved thus far."

The National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus judgment of the CIA and 15 other U.S. intelligence agencies, is the first on Iraq since January, when Bush introduced his new strategy for the war. The estimate, released by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell this afternoon, could prove to be an important element in the emerging debate over future Iraq policy.

That debate could come to a head when Gen. David H. Petraeus offers his assessment of the situation on the ground to Congress next month.

Much like the NIE in January, the latest document includes conclusions that each side could cite to bolster its case. Bush supporters likely will point to its determinations that the troop buildup has led to some progress and that withdrawing would be risky. Opponents of the war could focus on its gloomy view of Iraq's leadership and its pessimistic forecast of their ability to unite the fractured nation.

"The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki's vulnerability to alternative coalitions," the report says."We judge that Maliki will continue to benefit from recognition among Shia leaders that searching for a replacement could paralyze the government."

Responding to the assessment, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), said that "as today's NIE makes clear, a political solution is extremely unlikely in the near term. Further pursuit of the administration's flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation's best interests."

Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), her party's presidential front-runner, and Carl Levin (Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, have called for Maliki to be replaced by a less sectarian and more unifying leader if Maliki cannot quickly forge political compromise. Bush, after expressing his own disappointment with Maliki on Tuesday, yesterday offered him a fresh endorsement, calling him "a good man with a difficult job" and saying it was not up to American politicians to decide his fate.

Maliki's Shiite-led government has fractured through resignations and boycotts and he has proved unable or unwilling to enact measures sought by Washington to govern distribution of oil proceeds, hold provincial elections and welcome lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party back into government.

But the Bush administration has been unenthusiastic about pushing Maliki out because it views him as less tied to Iran than other Shiite leaders and because it does not want to repeat the five-month process that led to his selection.

In the latest NIE, intelligence analysts remained similarly unimpressed by the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over the battle with insurgents, sectarian fighters and al-Qaeda.

"We assess, to the extent that Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces, that Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next 6 - 12 months," the report says, "but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi Government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance."

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