In Iraq, a Forecast More Bleak Than Promising
A report predicts better security but a collapsing government
When the U.S. intelligence community took the unusual step last week of publicly weighing in on the situation in Iraq, there was something in its report for both President Bush and his growing number of critics.
The Bush administration, eager to build the case for its contentious "surge" plan, trumpeted the prediction in the National Intelligence Estimate that "Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months"—if the Bush administration continues its strategy. The NIE, which represents the consensus judgment of the nation's 16 intelligence agencies, credited the "close synchronization" of counterinsurgency efforts, undertaken as part of the surge, with the counterterrorism efforts that have been a part of U.S. operations all along.
But the intelligence assessment also dashed, and perhaps killed, hopes that the surge could give Iraqis enough political space to make progress on key reforms designed to hold the nation together. Not only does the NIE find that Iraqi political leaders "remain unable to govern effectively," but it warns that the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will become "more precarious" over the next six to 12 months.
The main problem is simple: Even with the slight ebb in attacks, Iraq remains much too violent for any meaningful shift to occur in the underlying factors tearing its political scene apart. The NIE points out that Shiites remain insecure about their new position of power (as well as deeply divided among themselves), while Sunnis are unwilling "to accept a diminished political status."
Reluctance. All of this has left Maliki trying to hold together some semblance of a coalition government. But his former Sunni partners have all abandoned his cabinet, and calls are growing in Washington, at least, for his resignation. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced after a visit to Iraq that he thought Maliki should step down. Bush, however, issued a strong defense of Maliki to counter perceptions that the White House view was changing, and even the Iraqi political establishment appears unwilling to oust him. (That reluctance is based largely on fears that the battle over his replacement could be even more damaging than the current paralysis.)
Still, Washington's patience clearly is running out. Even Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and widely respected for his views on the military, called last week for the United States to begin pulling a few thousand troops out of Iraq before Christmas.
The growing clamor for some sort of drawdown is beginning to be felt in Baghdad as well. Many groups are moving "to take advantage of or protect themselves against the consequences of a U.S. drawdown," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. This thinking could propel militia groups to establish "local security solutions" that could spark further sectarian violence, according to the NIE, even as it might push some Sunni groups looking for protection closer to U.S. forces. The other worrisome trend is that Iraq's neighbors are watching closely, with both Iran and Syria expanding their support to different groups inside Iraq.
This story appears in the September 3, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.