Report Offers Grim View of Iraqi Leaders
By MARK MAZZETTI | August 24, 2007
WASHINGTON, Aug. 23 — A stark assessment released Thursday by the nation’s intelligence agencies depicts a paralyzed Iraqi government unable to take advantage of the security gains achieved by the thousands of extra American troops dispatched to the country this year.
The assessment, known as a National Intelligence Estimate, casts strong doubts on the viability of the Bush administration strategy in Iraq. It gives a dim prognosis on the likelihood that Iraqi politicians can heal deep sectarian rifts before next spring, when American military commanders have said that a crunch on available troops will require reducing the United States’ presence in Iraq.
But the report also implicitly criticizes proposals offered by Democrats, including several presidential candidates, who have called for a withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq by next year and for a major shift in the American approach, from manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operations to lower-profile efforts aimed at supporting Iraqi troops and carrying out quick-strike counterterrorism raids.
Such a shift, the report says, would “erode security gains achieved thus far” and could return Iraq to a downward spiral of sectarian violence.
After a summer of rancorous debate over the future of America’s mission in Iraq, the intelligence report is the most prominent and authoritative assessment to date of what the administration calls a surge strategy.
The report, which represents the consensus view of America’s 16 intelligence agencies, suggests that policy makers face a dilemma. While the current strategy in Iraq has produced “measurable but uneven improvements” in security, it says, the approach has done little to bridge sectarian divides in Iraq. The report also says that pulling American troops out of Iraq would most likely make things far worse.
The intelligence estimate comes just weeks ahead of a long-awaited progress report by senior American officials in Baghdad about security and political conditions in the country. Within hours of its release on Thursday, the assessment had already begun to reshape the terms of a political dialogue that could again come to a boil next month.
One leading Republican, Senator John Warner of Virginia, called for President Bush to take the first steps toward a limited drawdown of troops, of perhaps 5,000 soldiers by the end of the year, as a way to send the Iraqi government a message that “we mean business” in saying the American commitment in Iraq is not open-ended.
White House officials said that the assessment was evidence that the American troop increase had begun to dampen violence in Iraq, that progress was possible and that a precipitous troop withdrawal would sow chaos.
Democrats said the report showed that the White House had failed in its effort to use the troop increase to promote political progress in Iraq, and that it was time for the United States to change course.
The report says that the influx of American troops in Iraq has achieved some successes in lowering sectarian violence, but concludes that Iraqi leaders “remain unable to govern effectively” and that the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki “will become more precarious over the next 6 to 12 months” as rival factions led by Mr. Maliki’s fellow Shiites vie for power.
The assessment concludes that there is little reason to expect that Iraqi politicians will achieve significant gains before spring, when American commanders say they will have to begin to cut troop levels in Iraq, now at more than 160,000, to ease the burden on military personnel.
The report is optimistic about a number of what it calls “bottom up” security initiatives that have helped reduce violence in some parts of the country. Most prominent of these are efforts by Sunni tribal sheiks to band together against Islamic militants from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown Sunni Arab insurgent group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led.
But such local initiatives are also described in the report as a Catch-22. On one hand, they provide the “best prospect” for improving Iraqi security over the next year. But the assessment says that strong local initiatives could undermine Iraq’s central government, which American officials say is essential to lasting peace.
The intelligence assessment also cites a growing perception inside Iraq that an American troop withdrawal would inevitably be another factor that could destabilize the Maliki government, encouraging factions anticipating a power vacuum “to seek local security solutions that could intensify sectarian violence.”
Since being briefed on the report on Monday morning, President Bush has made comments widely interpreted as distancing him from Mr. Maliki, though White House officials insist that the Iraqi leader still has Mr. Bush’s support. Mr. Bush also called new attention to what he portrayed as the potentially catastrophic consequences of a hasty withdrawal.
Resuming his vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., Mr. Bush made no public statement about the intelligence estimate. But a White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, portrayed the report as a mixed assessment of the situation in Iraq. He said that it showed both that the American troop increase in Iraq had significantly reduced the sectarian violence in Iraq and that the White House strategy was “headed in the right direction.”
Mr. Johndroe said that the current military strategy in Iraq did not become “fully operational” until the middle of the summer, and added that it was frustrating but not surprising that political progress in Iraq was lagging.
But Democrats seized on the report, issuing a flurry of press releases portraying the administration’s Iraq strategy as having failed.
“Further pursuit of the administration’s flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation’s best interests,” said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a Democratic presidential candidate, said the report had provided “additional evidence” that Mr. Bush’s approach “has failed,” and added, “We need to stop refereeing this civil war, and start getting out now.”
In their attacks, Democrats ignored the report’s criticism of the approach that has been a common theme of their own Iraq proposals, which have emphasized a withdrawal of American combat troops. Most Democrats have urged that American forces who stay in Iraq limit their operations to training, support and quick-strike counterterrorism missions.
Mr. Warner, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had not spoken personally to Mr. Bush about his recommendation for a troop drawdown. But in a news conference in the Capitol, as he returned from a visit to Iraq, Mr. Warner urged the president to announce in September that he would bring a limited number of troops home, preferably before Christmas.
The intelligence assessment predicts that Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, will step up efforts to exert influence over Iraq’s feuding factions. Intelligence officials on Thursday said that Sunni nations in the Middle East, most prominently Saudi Arabia, were monitoring events in Iraq, possibly with an eye toward intervening on behalf of Sunnis in the country.
But intelligence officials made clear on Thursday that it was Iraqi leaders who had the most power to influence the future of their country. For months, American officials in Baghdad have stressed that any military gains would be ephemeral if Iraqi politicians were unable to find political solutions.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress last month that without political progress in Iraq, “no amount of troops in no amount of time will make much of a difference.”
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Crawford, Tex., and Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny from Washington.