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General, spy report raise Iraq stakes

Times Staff Writer

Despite some military progress, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is unable to govern his country effectively and the political situation is likely to become even more precarious in the next six to 12 months, the nation’s intelligence agencies concluded in a new assessment released Thursday.

The document, an update of a National Intelligence Estimate delivered in January, represents the view of all 16 U.S. spy agencies. It is their first comprehensive status report on Iraq since the troop buildup began early this year, and comes less than a month before a major assessment on the U.S. military commitment is due from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Though cautiously worded and full of caveats, the estimate presents a stark conclusion: Even though the troop increase has given the Iraqi government more breathing room, Maliki and other leaders are no closer to achieving the political reconciliation necessary to keep the country from disintegrating.

The report cites “measurable but uneven improvements” in security, but says the level of violence in Iraq remains high. “Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively,” it added.

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In highlighting the disconnect between military and political progress in Iraq, the report may deepen divisions in Washington over the continued U.S. troop commitment.

Supporters of President Bush can point to signs of military progress identified in the report. It says that “overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks,” and cites growing opposition to Al Qaeda-affiliated militants by Sunni Arab tribal leaders.

But Democrats and war critics question whether that progress and the accompanying U.S. sacrifice is increasingly futile because of the ineffectiveness of the Maliki government.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the report confirmed that “our troops are mired in an Iraqi civil war and the president’s escalation strategy has failed to produce the political results he promised to our troops and the American people.”

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“Every day that we continue to stick to the president’s flawed strategy,” Reid said, “is a day that America is not as secure as it could be.”

The full text of the report, titled “Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: Some Security Progress but Political Reconciliation Elusive,” remains classified. But the nation’s intelligence director, J. Michael McConnell, released a four-page summary of the document’s key judgments.

Intelligence officials said the document was produced at the request of Congress and the National Security Council, and that its release was timed so it could be considered by military officials and others working on other progress reports due next month.

The summary concludes that “the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months.” That is a crucial period because military experts believe the troop increase cannot be sustained longer than that without causing a serious degradation in the capabilities of U.S. forces.

If the boosted troop presence does continue, the report predicts that “Iraq’s security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months, but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance.”

The harsh assessment of the Iraqi government comes when barbs are flying between Baghdad and Washington.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is among those who have called for Maliki to step down. Bush rose to Maliki’s defense, and the prime minister lashed out at U.S. criticism, saying Wednesday during a visit to Syria that his country “can find friends elsewhere.”

Maliki’s authority has been eroded by a series of defections from his Cabinet and the withdrawal of support from groups that include a powerful faction led by anti-U.S. Shiite Muslim cleric and militia leader Muqtada Sadr.

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One of the few factors working in Maliki’s favor, one high-level intelligence official said, is that “it’s difficult to see an obvious replacement.”

The recent defections from the Maliki government reflect deep sectarian divisions that have pulled Iraq toward civil war -- a term the intelligence estimate does not employ.

In a bleak assessment of the prospects for reconciliation in Iraq, the report says fighting among Shiites over power and resources “probably will intensify”; that the Sunni Arab community “remains politically fragmented”; and that Kurdish leaders are focused on protecting their autonomy in the northern part of the country.

The report identifies two new elements that are further complicating political and military developments: expanded Sunni Arab opposition to Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq, and the widening expectation in the country of an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.

The latter development is prompting local leaders to take it upon themselves to provide security in their areas, intelligence officials said. That could lead to a reduction in violence if the Maliki government can enlist their support.

But intelligence officials said that prospect is uncertain, and that more heavily armed and autonomous local groups could challenge the authority of the central government and further destabilize the country.

Overall, the report concludes that the ability of groups affiliated with Al Qaeda to move and mount attacks in parts of Iraq has been significantly eroded by cooperation among Sunni Arab tribal leaders, who have been emboldened by successful U.S.-led operations and are increasingly dismayed by the bloody tactics of the Al Qaeda in Iraq group.

The Sunni Arab militant organizations in Iraq are “losing leaders at a fairly great clip,” one senior U.S. intelligence official said. He was among three officials who briefed reporters on the intelligence assessment. All spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that doing so enabled them to speak more candidly about its contents.

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Although the militants are still capable of spectacular attacks, the senior official said, such strikes undermine their support among the Iraqi population. He also noted that growing Sunni opposition to the militants has not translated into broadened support for the Maliki government.

The report stops short of issuing a bottom-line assessment of the effectiveness of the troop increase. The closest it comes to doing so is to warn that a significant change in the mission of U.S. and coalition forces “would erode security gains achieved thus far.”

That section of the report seems addressed to proposals by some in Congress for U.S. forces to shift their role from counterinsurgency operations to a strict focus on pursuing Sunni militant groups and supporting the Iraqi military.

It also points out that violence has surged in areas where U.S.-led forces have pulled back.

In the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where Britain is slowly reducing the size of its force, violence has escalated, the report says.

“Local militias show few signs of reducing their competition for control of valuable oil resources and territory,” the report says.

Authors of the report noted that improvements in security have not altered the realities faced by most Iraqis. The situation is “still at quite high levels of violence,” one official said. “That’s the framework in which Iraqis are viewing things.”

The assessment of Iraq is the latest in a series of intelligence reports that have been declassified, at least in part, for public view.

Intelligence officials said three new estimates on Iran were being prepared, including reports on its nuclear capabilities, its conventional military and the political situation in the country.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Iraq report

Falling short: Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern their country effectively and the government is likely to become more shaky over the next six to 12 months.

A marginal plus: There have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation.

Expectations: Iraq’s security is likely to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months if U.S. troop levels remain high, but violence will continue.

A worry: Al Qaeda in Iraq retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks.

Source: Times reporting


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