February 2, 2007
Growing polarization, inadequate security forces and a propensity to use violence as a tool are creating a daunting situation that confronts Iraqis, according to a much-anticipated, collaborative analysis from all 16 U.S. spy agencies.
"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 to 18 months, according to key judgments from the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq.
The Office of the National Intelligence Director released an unclassified summary of the document -- entitled "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead" -- on Friday. President Bush was briefed on its conclusions on Thursday.
Intelligence analysts crafted the assessment knowing its findings were likely to become public. They tried to avoid one of the most politically charged questions: Is Iraq in the midst of a civil war?
In their sober assessment, the government's top analysts instead found that the term "civil war" doesn't capture the complex situation in Iraq, which includes attacks on U.S. and coalition forces and struggles even within Iraqi sects, such as Shiite Muslims.
Yet, the estimate said, the term "civil war" accurately reflects key elements of the problems in Iraq. That includes the hardening of sectarian identities, "a sea change in the character of the violence," and the displacement of entire populations.
The estimate painted a picture of a country hanging in the balance. It warned of grave consequences from events that could trigger even more violence, such as sustained mass killings, the assassination of a religious or political leader or a complete Sunni defection from government.
The possibilities "have the potential to convulse severely Iraq's security environment," the analysts found.
The estimate also warned of ominous consequences if the violence was left unchecked. "Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress ... we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate," the report said.
The Bush White House saw the document as support for the president's new strategy and troop buildup because it said that coalition forces, resources and operations remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq.
If coalition forces were to leave in the next 18 months, the estimate said, "we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq."
It would also intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government and hurt efforts aimed at national reconciliation, the report found.