WASHINGTON—In the bleakest terms yet, a new U.S. government intelligence assessment warned Friday that Iraq's sectarian violence is now self-sustaining and that the country's forces will be "hard pressed" to assume responsibility for security before mid-2008, despite accelerated U.S. training.
The new National Intelligence Estimate raised serious doubts about President Bush's latest stabilization plan for Iraq, the first goal of which is to "let the Iraqis lead," with the help of U.S. military trainers embedded in the army and police.
But the NIE said that "Iraqi Security Forces (ISF)—particularly the Iraqi police—will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities."
At the same time, the report echoed Bush's warnings that a rapid U.S. troop pullout in the next 18 months could trigger a "significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict," which could produce "massive" civilian casualties and forced population transfers and prompt open intervention by Iraq's neighbors, such as Turkey.
The findings illustrate Bush's dilemma as violence in Iraq escalates and he confronts demands from Democrats, a growing number of Republicans and many Americans to withdraw the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
"This NIE appears to be the latest in a long line of bleak assessments by foreign policy and military experts indicating that the president's new plan is flawed and failing," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The long-anticipated assessment, titled "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead," represented the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies.
The National Intelligence Council—comprising the most senior U.S. intelligence analysts—produced the report. Only the key findings were made public; the bulk of the report remained highly classified. The full document was given to Bush on Thursday and was made available to top U.S. officials and members of Congress on Friday.
The NIE is the first top-level intelligence review of Iraq since a seriously flawed October 2002 assessment on its illegal weapons programs, which Bush used to make his case for toppling the late dictator Saddam Hussein.
The NIE painted a grim picture of Iraq, saying that deep historical and political differences and attacks by extremist groups have created a "self-sustaining" conflict between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, and it's driven more than 1 million Iraqi refugees into Syria and Jordan, according to U.N. estimates.
There are also clashes between rival Shiite militias; attacks on U.S. forces, mainly by Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists; terrorism by al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups; and violent crime.
"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," the report began.
"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 in the time frame of this Estimate," it said.
"The term `civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq. Nevertheless, the term `civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict."
There currently are no Shiite or Sunni leaders who can unify the sects, whose schism dates back some 1,400 years, limiting prospects of reconciliation, the report said.
Decades of repression under Saddam and other Sunni leaders have left Shiites unwilling to surrender the political power they won in U.S.-organized elections in 2005, it said.
Sunnis, meanwhile, are "unwilling to accept their minority status," and they regard the ruling Shiite-dominated coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as illegitimate and a tool of Iran's Shiite theocracy, the report said.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the intelligence on which the report was based led Bush to approve the new stabilization strategy he unveiled last month.
The plan calls for the deployment of an additional 21,500 U.S. troops, most of whom will be sent into Baghdad neighborhoods in an effort to first bring peace to the capital, the center of the sectarian bloodshed.
But U.S. forces are designated to play a supporting role under the strategy. U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police are supposed to take the lead in curbing the sectarian violence, which is claiming dozens of lives daily, forcing major population shifts and driving tens of thousands of Iraqis to seek safety in adjacent countries.
Bush has endorsed al-Maliki's intention to have his security forces assume responsibility for the entire country by November. So far, U.S. commanders have given the Iraqis operational control of three of 10 Iraqi army divisions and responsibility for security in two provinces.
The NIE said that if Iraqi forces could be strengthened, were more loyal to the government and—with the support of U.S. forces—protected civilians more effectively, political leaders might have the breathing space they need to begin reconciliation.
Yet the NIE found that despite "real progress" in training and equipping, Iraqi security forces "will be hard pressed" to take on additional security responsibilities in the next 18 months.
"Sectarian divisions erode the dependability of many units, many are hampered by personnel and equipment shortfalls, and a number of Iraqi units have refused to serve outside the areas where they were recruited," the NIE said.
It also questioned whether Iraqi forces will be prepared to "operate independently" of U.S. supervision to crush Shiite Muslim militias, a central requirement of Bush's strategy.
The Shiite militias have been driving minority Sunni Muslims out of large swaths of Baghdad. The one most responsible for the violence, the Mahdi Army, is led by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers have infiltrated the security forces and are blamed for committing atrocities, including torture and murder, against Sunnis.
Al-Maliki, however, has been reluctant to go after al-Sadr's militia because he depends on the support of the cleric's followers in parliament. U.S officials say al-Maliki recently has begun cracking down on the most extreme Mahdi Army members.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.