A Sobering Outlook On Iraq

The picture that emerges in the latest U.S. intelligence assessment of Iraq is one of two distinct and increasingly divergent trends.

Iraq's security will "continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months" as long as the Bush administration continues its counterinsurgency campaign, according to consensus judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies released Wednesday.

But, at the same time, the national intelligence estimate warns that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious" over the same period because of increased jockeying between and among Iraq's many factions.

The Bush administration is sure to embrace the first finding as officials begin making the case that the "surge" plan is working in Iraq.

And indeed, the NIE stresses that one of the most important factors in the improving security picture is the "close synchronization" of the counterinsurgency operations undertaken as part of the "surge" with the counterterrorism efforts that have been a part of U.S. operations all along.

But a senior intelligence official concedes that while the frequency of insurgent and sectarian attacks does finally appear to be diminishing slightly, the Iraqi people are still suffering "quite high levels of violence."

And the factors impeding Iraqi leaders from making political progress--primarily "Shia insecurity" and "Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status," according to the NIE--appear so deeply entrenched that a changing security picture might not be enough to reverse the stalled political process.

This NIE is an update to a broader assessment released in February, which found that Iraqi leaders would be "hard pressed" to achieve sustained political progress.

Senior intelligence officials said the new NIE identifies two key developments since the February report.

First, Sunni tribal resistance to al Qaeda, often in cooperation with U.S. forces, has expanded. This has the potential to eventually translate into grass-roots security initiatives that could spread out to the regional or even national level. But the report cautions that the decision by many tribes to turn against al Qaeda has not yet translated into any increased Sunni support for the national government.

The second new factor is a growing set of calculations by various actors in Iraq surrounding increased chatter that the United States might withdraw some of its forces. Many groups are moving "to take advantage of or protecting themselves against the consequences of a U.S. drawdown," says a senior intelligence official.

Iraq's neighbors are watching closely, with both Iran and Syria expanding their support to different groups inside Iraq.

By Kevin Whitelaw