New U.S. intelligence assessment casts doubts on Bush's Iraq policy

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 11, 2007 

WASHINGTON — The Shiite Muslim-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has made only "halting efforts" to end the power struggle fueling the war between Iraq's religious and ethnic communities, a new U.S. intelligence report said Wednesday.

Even if the bloodletting can be contained, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders will be "hard pressed" to reach lasting political reconciliation, the report stated.

The report, reflecting the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, cast new uncertainty about the chances of success for President Bush's plan to contain the war through the deployment of an additional 28,000 U.S. troops, mostly in and around Baghdad.

The conclusions also appeared to be bleaker than a White House assessment produced by the top U.S. officials in Baghdad, which found that Iraqi politicians have made satisfactory progress on some of the 18 benchmarks set by Congress in May.

The new intelligence findings were contained in a 23-page Global Security Assessment presented to the House Armed Services Committee by Thomas Fingar, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the intelligence community's top analytical body.

"The struggle among and within Iraqi communities over national identity and the distribution of power has eclipsed attacks by Iraqis against (U.S.-led) Coalition Forces as the greatest impediment to Iraq's future as a peaceful, democratic and unified state," said the report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

While there have been some "positive developments, communal violence and scant common ground between the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds continues to polarize politics," it said.

Bush, facing growing pressure to change policy from key Republican senators, many of whom face re-election next year, has blamed the worsening violence on al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni terrorist group inspired by Osama bin Laden. But the new report repeats a January intelligence assessment that the conflict is a "self-sustaining sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunnis" for which al Qaida in Iraq attacks have served as "effective accelerants."

The report rendered judgment on two benchmarks: submission of a draft petroleum revenue-sharing law to parliament — which stalled immediately — and the formation of an independent election commission as a first step toward local elections.

But the report said Maliki's "agenda is still only at its initial stages."

Other tests of progress set by Congress include legislation allowing the return of senior members of the former ruling Baath Party to government jobs, reforming the constitution and disarming sectarian militias.

The benchmarks also call for deployment of three Iraqi army brigades in the U.S.-led Baghdad security operation, even-handed law enforcement by Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces, an end to politicians' intervention in military operations and an increase in the number of Iraqi forces capable of operating independently.

The White House assessment, based on a report submitted earlier this week by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, will be somewhat more upbeat, according to two military officials who read it.

It will say that the Maliki government has made satisfactory progress on about half the benchmarks, largely those requiring it to provide resources and forces to the Baghdad security operation.

The government, however, has performed unsatisfactorily on the other half, mostly those dealing with political measures, said the two officials, who declined to elaborate. They requested anonymity because the report is confidential.

"We can only say that it's mixed at this point," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said when asked to characterize the report's overall findings.

Bush and top U.S. diplomatic and defense officials have repeatedly said that the war can be ended only through a political settlement.

A former senior military official who advises the Pentagon said there is mounting concern that hard-line Sunni and Shiite leaders, believing their side can prevail over the other in an all-out conflict, do not intend to implement the benchmarks so they can hasten a U.S. troop withdrawal.

"Both sides believe there is no point in having part of the pie if they can have the whole pie, and they are both convinced they can overwhelm their opponent," said the official, who requested anonymity to protect his relationship with the Pentagon.

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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