New York Times
January 19, 2005
WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 - The Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops, according to new American intelligence estimates described by senior administration officials.
The reports also warn that the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war, the officials said.
This pessimism is consistent with other assessments over the past six months, including a classified cable sent in November by the Central Intelligence Agency's departing station chief in Baghdad. But the new assessments, from the C.I.A. and the Defense and State Departments, focus more closely on the aftermath of the election, including its potential implications for American policy, the officials said.
The assessments are based on the expectation that a Shiite Arab coalition will win the elections, in which Shiites are expected to make up a vast majority of voters, the officials said. Leaders of the coalition have promised voters they will press Washington for a timetable for withdrawal, and the assessments say the new Iraqi government will feel bound, at least publicly, to meet that commitment.
Such a request would put new pressure on the Bush administration, which has said it would honor an Iraqi request but has declined to set a timetable for withdrawing the 173,000 American and other foreign troops now in Iraq. Officials, including Colin L. Powell, the secretary of state, have said such decisions should be based on security needs, which include training more Iraqis.
"Nobody wants to withdraw in such a way as to leave Iraq ill prepared to confront an insurgency which is not going to disappear," a senior administration official said. "So the focus is, how can we maximize our training program to get as many Iraqis out there as quickly as possible."
The official said the United States was hoping that the new Iraqi government would settle for a schedule based on the military situation, not the calendar. But the official said there was uncertainty about how vigorously the new Iraqi government would press for a reduction of American forces.
"At this point, it's very speculative to talk about a timetable, and when and how they want us to leave," the official said.
In an interview last Thursday on the PBS program "Newshour With Jim Lehrer," Mr. Powell said that he "would like to see our troops come out as quickly as possible" and that "the Iraqis would like to see our troops come out as quickly as possible." But he added, "It's not possible right now to say that by the end of 2005 we'll be down to such and such a number."
The government officials who described the intelligence assessments report to different agencies and included both critics and supporters of the war in Iraq. All said they had read or been briefed on the documents, but they insisted on anonymity, saying they did not want to overshadow recent comments by Mr. Powell and President Bush.
In an interview with The Washington Post published over the weekend, Mr. Bush declined to be specific about any kind of a timetable for a withdrawal. But administration officials said that in a meeting last Thursday, Mr. Bush's principal national security advisers had discussed how the United States might respond if the new Iraq government put forward such a request.
The grim tone of the new intelligence assessments was first reported by Knight Ridder newspapers in articles that appeared Monday in The Miami Herald and elsewhere.
In recent days, Mr. Powell and others among Mr. Bush's senior advisers have become more direct in acknowledging that the anti-American insurgency is not likely to fade soon.
"It is a raging insurgency, and we are not trying to dismiss it or downplay it," Mr. Powell said in the "Newshour" interview. "The insurgency is not going to go away as a result of this election," he said. "In fact, perhaps the insurgents might become more emboldened" if they succeeded in dissuading large numbers of Sunnis from voting.
Under Saddam Hussein the Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the population, were the dominant group in Iraq, but whether or not Sunnis take part, the election is almost certain to transfer that role to the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of all Iraqis. Kurds account for most of the remaining 20 percent.
Mr. Bush, asked in the interview with The Washington Post whether American troops might begin leaving Iraq in 2005, said: "The way I would put it is, American troops will be leaving as quickly as possible, but they won't be leaving until we have completed our mission, and part of the mission is to train Iraqis so they can fight the terrorists. And the sooner the Iraqis are prepared - better prepared, better equipped to fight, the sooner our troops will start coming home."
At the White House meeting last week, one senior military official warned that Iraq was already emerging as "Afghanistan West," becoming a magnet and haven for militants, as Afghanistan did for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda under the Taliban.
In the Washington Post interview, Mr. Bush said he shared the concern that "this could happen," saying: "If we're not diligent and firm, there will be pockets of - parts of the world that become pockets for terrorists to find safe haven and to train. And we have a duty to disrupt that."