WASHINGTON —U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Bush administration before the invasion of Iraq that ousting Saddam Hussein would create a "significant risk" of sectarian strife, encourage al Qaida attacks and open the way for Iranian interference.
The Senate Intelligence Committee on Friday released declassified prewar intelligence reports and summaries of others that cautioned that establishing democracy in Iraq would be "long, difficult and probably turbulent" and said that while most Iraqis would welcome elections, the country's ethnic and religious leaders would be unwilling to share power.
Nevertheless, President Bush, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other top aides decided not to deploy the major occupation that force military planners had recommended, planned to reduce U.S. troops rapidly after the invasion and believed that ousting Saddam would ignite a democratic revolution across the Middle East.
The administration also instituted a massive purge of members of Saddam's Baath Party and disbanded the Iraqi army—moves that helped spark the country's Sunni Muslim insurgency—even though the newly declassified intelligence reports had recommended against doing so.
The committee released two newly declassified January 2003 analyses by the National Intelligence Council—whose work reflects the consensus of the nation's intelligence agencies—and summaries of reports by individual agencies as part of a four-year investigation into the administration's use of prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Committee members voted 10-5 to release the documents, with Republican members Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joining majority Democrats in approving the decision.
Democrats said the documents showed that the administration had failed despite adequate warnings to prepare for the Sunni insurgency, al Qaida terrorism and other problems that the United States has encountered since the March 2003 invasion.
"These dire warnings were widely distributed at the highest levels of government, and it's clear that the administration didn't plan for any of them," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Republicans disputed the documents' value and said their release "exaggerates the significance" of prewar intelligence assessments because they were based more on expert analysis than on hard intelligence.
The committee's work has become "too embroiled in politics and partisanship," said Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the panel's ranking Republican.
President Bush said at a news conference Thursday that his administration was "warned about a lot of things, some of which happened, some of which didn't happen."
But, he added, "The world's better off without Saddam Hussein in power. I know the Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein in power. I think America is safer without Saddam Hussein in power. As to al Qaida in Iraq, al Qaida's going to fight us wherever we are."
One January 2003 report, titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq," cautioned that whoever assumed control of Iraq "would face a country with societal fractures and significant potential for violent conflict among domestic groups if not prevented by an occupation force."
It said ousting Saddam would lead to "heightened competition for power among the different groups and new suspicions about what grabs for power other groups were making."
Even though most Iraqis would welcome elections, "the practical implementation of democratic rule would be difficult," the report said.
Another January 2003 analysis, titled "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq," warned that a U.S.-led war and occupation would encourage the spread of Islamic radicalism in the Muslim world and support for anti-American terrorism.
"Iraq itself might not be one of al Qaida's favored locations for attacks, given the group's greater operational presence elsewhere," it said. "Al Qaida, nonetheless, probably would try to exploit any postwar transition in Iraq to . . . mount hit-and-run operations against U.S. personnel."
The report also said removing Saddam would open the door to Iranian influence and that some elements in Tehran could "decide to try to counter aggressively the U.S. presence in Iraq" by "sowing dissent" among their contacts in Iraq's Kurdish and Shiite Muslim communities.