KATHERINE SHRADER Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the next year to year and a half, a collaborative report by 16 U.S. spy agencies says, raising uncertainty about the prospect for withdrawing American troops that are shoring up the government. Months in the making, the assessment says that growing and entrenched polarization between Shia and Sunni Muslims, inadequate Iraqi security forces, weak leaders, and the success of extremists’ efforts to use violence to exacerbate the sectarian war all create a situation that will be difficult to improve. “We think it is accurate,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said in a briefing on the document, called a National Intelligence Estimate. “We would emphasize the hardpressed,’ because we will be pressing them hard and the Iraqi people will be pressing the government hard.” Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said it “demonstrates that the situation in Iraq is indeed dire and deteriorating. It saddens me that the pessimistic impressions I gained during my recent trip to Iraq are reinforced by the conclusions of the latest NIE.” The report said that “even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard-pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation” any time soon. It used much the same language about the prospects for Iraqi security forces, saying that despite recent improvements, they too “will be hard-pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities” and take on Shiite militias. The Office of the National Intelligence Director made public an unclassified summary of the document titled “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead.” President Bush was briefed on its conclusions Thursday. Knowing the findings were likely to become public, intelligence analysts stepped gingerly around one of the most politically charged questions of the Iraq debate: Is the country in the midst of a civil war? The analysts found the term “civil war” doesn’t entirely capture the complex situation in Iraq, which in addition to Shiites fighting Sunnis includes attacks on U.S. and coalition forces and struggles within sects, such as Shiites. Yet, the estimate said, the term “civil war” does accurately reflect key elements of the problem. That includes the hardening of sectarian identities, “a sea change in the character of the violence,” and the displacement of key segments of the population to other countries. Skelton, D-Mo., said the report tells him “the president’s infusion of additional troops in Iraq is probably the last roll of the dice. But rather than convincing me that this is the right approach, the NIE makes it more clear than ever that the president’s plan has little chance of success. “ The estimate painted a picture of a country literally hanging in the balance. It warned that leaving the current violence unchecked could invite the open intervention of neighboring countries, such as Turkey and those with Sunni regimes essentially the wider sectarian war that is many analysts’ worst fear for the region’s immediate future. While saying that outside actors are “not likely to be a major driver of violence,” the report noted that Iran already is providing lethal support to select Shiite groups and Syria is not doing enough to secure its borders. The estimate also warned of the grave consequences of other Possible developments, such as sustained mass killings, the assassination of a religious or political leader or a complete Sunni defection from a government in Baghdad that they already deeply distrust and are often unwilling to accept. These events “have the potential to convulse severely” the situation in Iraq, the analysts found. Administration officials portrayed the findings as support for the new strategy Bush announced last month, which included the troop increase, because it said that coalition forces are an essential stabilizing element in Iraq. If U.S. troops were to leave, the report said, “we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq.” It would also intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government and hamper reconciliation efforts, the report found. Hadley said the intelligence contained in the report had been available to Bush as he crafted the revamped war plan. “The policy was designed to deal with the challenges that are reflected in this intelligence,” he said. “It does suggest that we can succeed with the right policies and we think we have developed the right policy.” Indeed, the estimate said some positive developments could analysts stressed “could” help reverse negative trends. They include broader acceptance of the Sunni minority of the central government and concessions on the part of Shiites and Kurds to make more room for Sunni participation. The completed estimate comes as Congress is considering resolutions on Bush’s troopincrease decision, which has opposition among both Democrats and Republicans. Even some Republicans saw the estimate’s release as a moment to criticize the administration’s course. “The NIE makes clear that we cannot continue the same stubborn strategy that has brought us to this point in Iraq,” said Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “It also makes clear that we cannot just pull our forces out as if that decision can be made in a vacuum and without consequence.” Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has been nominated to move from his current job to become the No. 2 person at the state Department. The administration’s decision to release the National Intelligence Estimate marks a new way of doing business at the National Intelligence Council.