Friday, February 02, 2007

Intelligence Report Predicts Spiraling of Violence in Iraq

Published: February 2, 2007
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Feb. 2 — A much-anticipated assessment of Iraq by America’s intelligence agencies describes a worsening cycle of chaos in the country, and predicts that the sectarian strife will continue to fracture the country without bold actions by Iraqi politicians.

And even if violence is diminished, prospects for a political reconciliation in the country are dim “given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene,” the assessment warns.

The assessment, titled "Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead", begins with this blunt conclusion:

"Iraqi society’s growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides’ ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism.

"Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."

The term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the conflict, including “the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities,” the report says, but the overall struggle is more complicated. The report points to a lethal stew of Iraqi-on-Iraqi bloodshed across and within ethnic lines, Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks, “and widespread criminally motivated violence.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called the term “civil war” a “bumper-sticker answer” that oversimplified the reality of overlapping conflicts. “I believe that there are essentially four wars going on in Iraq,” he said at a Pentagon briefing today, citing Shia-on-Shia strife, principally in the South; sectarian violence, largely in Baghdad; the Sunni insurgency, and attacks by Al Qaeda.

The assessment contains the consensus judgments of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community and is sure to fuel the debate within Congress and between some lawmakers and the White House over what to do.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, called the document “the latest in a long line of bleak assessments by foreign policy and military experts indicating the president’s plan is flawed and failing. This conclusion is shared by a bipartisan group of Congress and an overwhelming majority of Americans.”

In general, the assessment is gloomy about the eroding security in the country and the prospects for Iraq’s government to reign in the violence between Sunni and Shia sects.

The report also argues against a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, concluding that a rapid military pullout “almost certainly would lead” to carnage worse in scale and scope.

Some of the report’s judgments were first reported today in The Washington Post.

There are a few grains of optimism. The Iraqi security forces have shown “real improvements,” the report says, even though they are unlikely to be able to assume greater responsibilities and battle Shiite militias successfully in the next 12 to 18 months.

And the assessment says that some developments “could” help to reverse the downward spiral: broader Sunni acceptance of the political structure; concessions by Shiites and Kurds to “create space” for Sunni acceptance, and “a bottom-up approach” to help mend frayed tribal and religious relationships.

But prospects for better relations between Shiites and Sunnis are clouded by the Shiites’ deep feelings of insecurity spawned by decades of subordination by the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein — and the Sunnis’ lack of respect for the central government and reluctance to accept their minority status now. Moreover, the Kurds, while “willing” to take part in building a new Iraq, are reluctant to surrender the autonomy they have achieved recently, the report says.

The Kurds are a particular concern to Turkey, which does not want Iraq to disintegrate and is determined to eliminate the safe haven in northern Iraq for a Turkish Kurdish terrorist group, the assessment notes. But while Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, “influence and are influenced by” events in Iraq, they probably do not have enough influence to stabilize Iraq because that country’s “internal sectarian dynamics” are self-sustaining, the documents states.

The report says Iraq could break apart “with grave humanitarian, political and security consequences” through a deadly mix of sectarian killings, assassinations of political and religious leaders and the complete Sunni repudiation of the government. Moreover, the documents says, many of Iraq’s professional and entrepreneurial people have already fled their country.

Should the worst happen and the new country fall apart completely, the assessment sees three possible outcomes, all dire:

Widespread fighting could produce “de facto partition” of the country into “three mutually antagonistic parts” and spawn “fierce violence” among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds for years. A second possibility is that a new strongman could emerge, a Shiite this time, instead of the new democracy envisioned by the Bush administration. Finally, there could be anarchy, with resulting instability and bloodshed.

At the Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Gates declined to comment in detail on the new intelligence estimate, which he said he had not read, and sought to play down the importance of the debate over whether Iraq is in the midst of a civil war.

"When I think of a civil war I think of thousands of people out in the streets,” he said. Instead, in Iraq, he said he sees "gangs of killers going after specific neighborhoods or specific targets,” or attacks on marketplaces meant to cause random suffering.

As for recent efforts by the Iraqi government, he said officials appeared to be delivering, at least in part, on the first of a series of benchmarks for progress agreed upon between Baghdad and Washington.

Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was also at the briefing, said that two of the four Iraqi army brigades promised as reinforcements in the capital as part of a new security plan had arrived, a third was en route and the fourth was scheduled to arrive by the end of February.

"Contrary to what has happened in the past, the units that were designated” for deployment in Baghdad are being sent, he said.

But the units that have arrived are at only about 60 percent strength, a figure that General Pace said was not acceptable. "They do need to flesh them out,” he said. "They need to get the people back who are with their families. It needs to be stronger than that.”

Absenteeism is a chronic problem in the Iraqi security forces, in part because the lack of a working banking system means that soldiers are granted leave to deliver their pay to their families, and troops have sometimes refused assignments. In other cases, units do not want to leave the region in which they are based. Last summer, when the Iraqi government ordered troops to Baghdad to help with an earlier security effort, many of the them refused to go, American military officials have said.

Democrats in Congress have complained that the Bush administration has refused to make the list of benchmarks public, even as the president has sought to assure the public that the American commitment is not "open ended.”

Mr. Gates today said that he saw no problem in releasing the benchmarks, and described the earliest of them in general terms: "Are the brigades showing up, reasonably on time, in the numbers they need to be, are the politicians staying out of the decisions on which neighborhoods to go into, are the security forces allowed to go into all neighborhoods where there are lawbreakers?”

Mr. Bush and American commanders in Baghdad have blamed the failure of earlier security efforts there to the shortage of Iraqi troops and to restrictions placed by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, on the ability of American soldiers to pursue Shiite militia members.

Senior intelligence officials for months had provided glimpses of the new intelligence estimate in public testimony before Congress, including an assessment that sectarian violence is the most significant threat to Iraqi security, surpassing even Al Qaeda’s role in Iraqi attacks.

“Conflict in Iraq is a self-sustaining and growing cycle in which violent acts increasingly generate retaliation,” Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, who leads the Defense Intelligence Agency, recently told members of Congress.

“Insecurity rationalizes and justifies militias, in particular Shia militias and increases fears in the Sunni Arab community,” he said.

As the sectarian violence gathered steam over last summer, top Senators requested that Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte begin work on the new assessment, the first N.I.E. on Iraq since 2004.

National intelligence estimates draw analysis from America’s disparate intelligence agencies, and are written by officials at the National Intelligence Council.

The new report also draws conclusions about that ability of the Iraqi government to quell the violence and mend sectarian rifts in the country.

Last week, National Intelligence Council chairman, Thomas Fingar, told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the new N.I.E. concludes it will be “very difficult” for the Iraqi prime minister to deal with the violence and accomplish a national reconciliation, but “not impossible.”

"We judge that Maliki does not wish to fail in his role," Mr. Fingar said. "He does not wish to preside over the disintegration of Iraq."