WASHINGTON — A series of new U.S. intelligence assessments on Iraq paints a grim picture of the road ahead and concludes that there's little likelihood that President Bush's goals can be attained in the near future.
Instead of stabilizing the country, national elections Jan. 30 are likely to be followed by more violence and could provoke a civil war between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Muslims, the CIA and other intelligence agencies predict, according to senior officials who've seen the classified reports.
A CIA spokesman, Tom Crispell, said he was unable to comment. A White House spokeswoman had no immediate comment. The federal government was closed Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
A new public report by the National Intelligence Council concludes that instead of diminishing terrorism, U.S.-occupied Iraq has replaced prewar Afghanistan as a breeding and training ground for terrorists who may disperse to conduct attacks elsewhere.
Two senior intelligence officials with access to classified reporting said Islamic militants allied with or inspired by Osama bin Laden were forging ties to Iraqi nationalists and remnants of former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. The linkage is similar to the one that so-called "Afghan Arabs" formed with Afghanistan's Taliban regime after the Soviet Union withdrew from that country, they said.
The Bush administration claimed before invading Iraq that Saddam had strong ties to international terrorism, but most counterterrorism experts dispute that and no evidence has been found to support the claim.
"The sad thing is we have created what the administration claimed we were intervening to prevent: an Iraq/al-Qaida linkage," one of the senior intelligence officials said.
The officials who were more pessimistic spoke on condition of anonymity, because the latest intelligence assessments are classified and their views are at odds with public statements from the White House.
Even in their public remarks, top military officers and policy-makers are becoming more cautionary about the road ahead in Iraq.
All major U.S. intelligence agencies share a pessimistic prognosis for Iraq's future, according to a senior administration official. The assessment of the State Department's intelligence bureau is so grim that it's referred to as the "I agree with Scowcroft's analysis" report.
That's a reference to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush. Scowcroft said earlier this month that the Iraqi elections could deepen the conflict and "we may be seeing an incipient civil war."
Bush and his national security team took issue with Scowcroft's remarks, but the pessimistic indicators have led a growing number of senior U.S. military and intelligence officials to say they worry that the mission in Iraq is becoming untenable for the American military.
The United States faces an agonizing choice, they say, because an American withdrawal would hand militant Islam a huge victory and probably doom the transitional Iraqi government that will be chosen in less than two weeks.
Another possibility is that the transitional government, expected to be dominated by Shiites, could give the United States a timetable to leave. The White House and State Department have said such a request would be honored.
The reports, also by the CIA and the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, were shared and discussed at a recent U.S. intelligence community conference.
Intelligence analysts expect the Iraqi insurgents, who are primarily Sunni, to have three post-election goals:
_Crippling and discrediting the new government by assassinating key officials, killing police officers and demonstrating that the government and its American allies can't secure the country.
_Fomenting Sunni-Shiite violence.
_Driving the Americans out of Iraq by undermining public and political support there and the United States for the U.S. mission.
Bush has given no sign that he plans to change approaches in Iraq and has declined to set his own timeline for American troops to withdraw.
The president told The Washington Post in an interview published Sunday that he believed that the 2004 election ratified his Iraq policies.
"I'm more patient than some, but also mindful that we've got to get the Iraqis up and running as quickly as possible, so they can defeat these terrorists," he said.
At the same time, the Bush administration has tried to lower public expectations of what the elections for an Iraqi national assembly can accomplish.
Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of multinational forces in northwest Iraq, said Saturday that insurgents were likely to switch their focus from disrupting the election to threatening those who won.
"I think there are some threats that will emerge in the post-election period which are very, very important," Ham said.
Outgoing Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told National Public Radio last week that while civil war was not in the offing, "I think most in the government expect the violence to continue long after these elections."
The public report by the National Intelligence Council appears to contradict the Bush administration's contention that the invasion of Iraq struck a blow against terrorism.
The report by the council, an advisory board of top intelligence analysts that's independent of the CIA, says Iraq has taken the place once held by Afghanistan as a proving ground for terrorist leaders.
"The al-Qaida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq," says the unclassified report, "Mapping the Global Future," which is an analysis of trends to the year 2020.
"Iraq and other possible conflicts in the future could provide recruitment, training grounds, technical skills and language proficiency for a new class of terrorists who are `professionalized' and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself," it says.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Joseph L. Galloway contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.