Iraq conflict has elements of ‘civil war’

By Demetri Sevastopulo and Caroline Daniel in Washington

Financial Times

Published: February 3 2007

The Iraqi government will be “hard-pressed” to achieve political reconciliation over the next 18 months as it tackles a “civil war” and the insurgency, according to a key US intelligence report.

The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a comprehensive report approved by the entire intelligence community, also warned that Iraqi security forces would have great difficulty clamping down on Shia militias without US support.

“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 [next 12-18 months],” said the long-awaited report.

It was the first official US document released to the public that concluded that elements of the conflict in Iraq constituted a “civil war”.

“The term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks on coalition forces and widespread criminally motivated violence,” said the report.

“Nonetheless, the term ‘civil war’ accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilisation and population displacements.”

The Bush administration has resisted using the term “civil war” to describe the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, shifted attention on Friday from the NIE’s use of the phrase by citing a long passage from an Iraqi official, denying that Iraq was in a civil war.

When asked if Mr Bush now accepted that “civil war” did accurately describe part of the violence in Iraq, he said the president accepted the conclusions about “hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilisation and population displacements”.

The declassified version of NIE did not include reference to two elements of the full 90-page report, which included dissenting views in the intelligence community over the role of Iran and Syria in Iraq.

On Syria, analysts disagree over the complicity of Damascus in allowing extremists to flow across the border into Iraq. On Iran, they differed over whether the government was harbouring al-Qaeda members inside Iran.

The Bush administration has stepped up both military and rhetorical pressure on Iran in recent weeks. Senior officials have argued that Iran is responsible for killing American and British soldiers inside Iraq.

But Robert Gates, the defence secretary, said on Friday that the Pentagon did not know whether the Iranian government was sponsoring the efforts.

Democrats immediately leapt on the report as evidence that Mr Bush’s military surge in Iraq would fail. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, said the report was the “latest in a long line of bleak assessments . . . indicating the president’s plan is flawed and failing”.

But the report concluded that a sudden withdrawal of US troops would propel Iraq into great chaos. It said the Iraqi security forces “would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian national institution” and neighbouring countries might “intervene openly in the conflict”.