WASHINGTON - The Iraqi government is strained by rampant violence, deep sectarian differences among its political parties and stymied leadership, the US' top spy analysts concluded in a sobering assessment released Thursday.
An Iraqi soldier lines up detainees that were arrested during an Iraqi Army operation just outside the city of Baqouba, some 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007. [AP]
With the country teetering between success and failure in the next year, Iraq's neighbors will continue to try to expand their leverage in the fractured state in anticipation that the United States will soon leave, the new report found.
It predicted that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months" because of criticism from various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions. "To date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," it said.
There was a glimmer of backhanded hope for the Iraqi leadership in the often dark analysis: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will continue to benefit from the belief among other Shiite leaders that "searching for a replacement could paralyze the government."
The new National Intelligence Estimate was an update of another high-level assessment prepared six months ago by the top analysts scattered across all 16 US spy agencies. The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency were the key contributors to Thursday's report, which found some security progress but elusive hopes for reconciliation among Iraq's feuding groups.
It came at a time of renewed tensions between Washington and Baghdad, and as the Bush administration prepares a mid-September report on how this year's troop buildup in Iraq is working.
Overall, the report finds that Iraq's security will continue to "improve modestly" over the next six to 12 months, provided that coalition forces mount strong counterinsurgency operations and mentor Iraqi forces. But even then, violence levels will remain high as the country struggles to achieve national political reconciliation.
"The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki's vulnerability" to factions that could form a rivaling coalition, the document says.
Although al-Maliki is a Shiite, it finds that other Shiite factions have looked at ways to constrain him.
The administration and the many opponents of its Iraq policy both will find evidence in the report to justify the policies they recommend.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the report confirms what most Americans know.
"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," he said.
Yet the report also backed many of the administration's arguments: the troop buildup announced in January has created new room for success, and the military can't leave quickly or shift its focus from efforts to stop insurgents and stabilize the Iraqi government.
Earlier this week US President Bush said the Iraqi government clearly could do more, but he and his aides quickly sought to tamp down suggestions the administration had lost faith in al-Maliki.
"This is a government that is learning - frankly - learning how to govern," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "No, it is not moving nearly as fast as everyone in Washington, D.C., would like it to move."
US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, are due to report next month on how much progress is being made with the buildup, which now has some 162,000 troops, the highest of the four-year-old war.
Among the polarizing questions facing US policymakers is whether and how to reduce the number of forces stationed in Iraq.
Hours after the intelligence report's release, Sen. John Warner, a prominent Republican on military affairs, called on Bush to start bringing some troops home by Christmas. He said the move wouldn't destabilize the country, but could send a clear warning to Iraq that time is running out.
Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the president needs to develop a consensus at home and give clarity to the Iraqi government about the US course. "Groups in Iraq are making assumptions about what they think we will do, and some of those assumptions are wrong," Hoekstra said.
The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group report recommended reducing the number of troops and putting them in a support and training role for Iraqi forces, along with a small US counterterrorist force to target al-Qaida in Iraq.
That recommendation by the independent panel was once flatly rejected by the White House, but lately has gained more currency as advisers search for a way out of the US combat presence in Iraq by the end of Bush's presidency.
The intelligence report warns against scaling back the mission of US forces. Analysts found that changing the US military's mission from its current focus - countering insurgents and stabilizing the country - in favor of supporting Iraqi forces and stopping terrorists would hurt the security gains of the last six months.
The report said there has been measurable, but uneven, progress. In seven of the last nine weeks, US agencies have seen a downward trend in the levels of attacks, said a senior US intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the report more freely.
The intelligence analysts found that some localized security initiatives could help lessen the violence in the next year, particularly the improved cooperation from some Sunni tribal sheiks who have banded together and turned on al-Qaida in Iraq.
But those local efforts could also have a downside. The senior intelligence official said it could empower factions that, in some cases, could challenge the authority of the central Iraqi government.
The report and senior officials also found:
• Iraq's neighbors will continue to focus on improving their leverage in Iraq, expecting the US and its allies to leave. "Assistance to armed groups, especially from Iran, exacerbates the violence inside Iraq," the report said. Since January, there is mounting evidence of Iran's support for Shiite militants, including highly lethal explosive devices.
• Syria has cracked down on al-Qaida networks inside its borders because they threaten Damascus' security. However, Syria is increasing the range of groups it supports in Iraq to bolster its influence there. And it still allows roughly 50 to 80 foreign fighters a month to travel into neighboring Iraq.
• Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have not supported the al-Maliki government, but they haven't provided arms or other support to Sunni fighters, choosing instead to stay on the sidelines.