New Intelligence Report Casts Even More Doubt On Iraq

In the debate raging in Washington over Presidents Bush's new Iraq strategy, both his backers and critics will find something to hold on to in the intelligence community's new assessment of the Iraq conflict. But the grim
National Intelligence Estimate, subtitled "A Challenging Road Ahead," does not offer much encouragement that anything in Iraq will get much better anytime soon.

In one of the clearer statements yet, the estimate, released by the
director of national intelligence, effectively calls the situation in Iraq a "civil war," a term the Bush administration has tried to avoid. DNI analysts point to the hardening of sectarian identities, a change in the patterns of violence, and large numbers of people being forced out of their homes.

But the estimate adds that the "civil war" description "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia
violence, al Qaeda, and Sunni insurgency attacks on coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence."

On its face, the new NIE, which represents the consensus judgment of the
nation's 16 intelligence agencies, does not give Bush's new strategy high odds of success. Looking at the next 12 to 18 months, the DNI assesses that "the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006." Even if violence were reduced, the report suggests that "Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation" in the next 18 months.

The assessment of Iraq's security forces is similarly gloomy, with analysts concluding that the Iraqi military, but particularly the police, will also be "hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities." This is a discouraging conclusion for the Bush administration, which is relying on Iraqi units to help reduce the violence level in Baghdad as a key part of its plan.

Still, Bush's backers will find some support for his policy. For one thing, the NIE allows that if U.S. forces, along with strengthened Iraqi forces, manage to reduce the violence level, it could permit political compromises to begin.

The estimate also forcefully rebuts the congressional proponents of a speedy withdrawal from Iraq, calling the U.S. military presence "an essential stabilizing element in Iraq." If those forces departed rapidly in the next 18 months, the NIE warns that it would "almost certainly lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq." Even worse, it adds that Iraqi security forces would likely fracture, Iraq's neighbors might openly intervene, massive civilian casualties would be likely, and al Qaeda would use lawless parts of the country to plan attacks in the region.

An in-depth
report on Iraq released by the Brookings Institution this week was even clearer. "By any definition, Iraq is already in a state of civil war," it concluded. "The only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into a Lebanon- or Bosnia-style maelstrom is 140,000 American troops, and even they are merely slowing the fall at this point."

But the Bush administration remains unwilling to go that far. This morning, Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to describe the situation in Iraq as a civil war. "What I see in Iraq in the sectarian conflict are gangs of killers going after specific neighborhoods or specific targets," he said. "This isn't a divided army or a divided government in the sense that I always thought of a civil war."

In the past several weeks, Bush administration officials have stepped up their rhetoric against Iran and its activities in Iraq. In particular, Washington has accused Tehran of supporting Shiite militias with weaponry and training. Yet the estimate downplays the role of Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria, in fomenting the violence. "The involvement of these outide actors is 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 NIE concludes.

The intelligence community is also warning policymakers that the situation in Iraq could get much, much worse. The NIE describes several kinds of major events, such as the assassination of a major religious or political figure or the complete defection of Sunni leaders from the government, that could "convulse severely" the security environment. The result, the estimate warns, could be anything from a hostile, de facto partition of Iraq to the emergence of a Shiite strongman, to complete anarchy.

By Kevin Whitelaw