Good, Bad News in Iraq Intelligence Estimate

U.S. agencies have produced a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. The good news is that it sees al Qaida in Iraq's capabilities reducing, but the political side is a different story.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Now, the latest word from American spy agencies in Iraq. They have produced a new National Intelligence Estimate. It judges that progress is being made in Iraq's security situation. On the political side, though, it's a different, far bleaker story.

NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here is the good news. This new NIE, or National Intelligence Estimate, judges that al-Qaida in Iraq's capabilities have been reduced. It notes that attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks. And it concludes that so long as U.S. troops continue to fight insurgents and train Iraqi security forces, then, quote, "Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months."

There's a key development driving these gains, says Paul Pillar who spent five years as the CIA's top Iraq analyst.

Mr. PAUL PILLAR (Former Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency): If one had to identify the single, biggest piece of good news that is cataloged in this document, it has been the reduction of support for AQI, al-Qaida in Iraq, among many of the Sunni elements, as we've seen particularly in Anbar province.

KELLY: The NIE does say violence across Iraq remains high. And it judges Iraqi security forces still aren't strong enough to operate without U.S. help. Still, Jeffrey White, a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, argues that this NIE does document some real progress.

Mr. JEFFREY WHITE (Former Chief, Middle East Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency): I think the surge has actually had some, you know, significant positive effects on the security situation. It's given us the ability to actually take the war to the enemies, especially al-Qaida in Iraq, and pursue them in ways that we had not been able to do so before.

KELLY: But if the original point of the U.S. troops surge was to give Iraq's leaders breathing space to forge political progress, this new estimate makes clear that hasn't happened.

The NIE is relentlessly bleak on the political side. It casts serious doubts that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can govern effectively. Bottom line: it judges that Iraq's government will become more precarious in the coming months.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe tried to put a positive spin on that yesterday.

Mr. GORDON JOHNDROE (White House Spokesman): It is frustrating, but it's not surprising that the political reconciliation is lagging behind the security improvements. But no question about it, we want the Iraqi government to come together and make some decisions about how they're going to work together for more prosperous and secure Iraq.

KELLY: But the NIE holds out little hope that Iraq's leaders will come together. It predicts that divisions among Shia factions will probably intensify. It describes Sunnis as politically fragmented, and Kurdish leaders as refusing to compromise on key issues. Predictably for an intelligence document, the estimate does not weigh in on the question consuming Washington this week. That is, whether Prime Minister Maliki should keep his job.

Intelligence analysts do write that Maliki is benefiting from the recognition that a search for his replacement could paralyze the government there. Jeff White sees the situation this way.

Mr. WHITE: Maliki probably can't deliver, but there isn't anybody else really in the wings that can. You know, there are no George Washingtons, no Thomas Jeffersons. There's nobody there that can really reach out and pull the country together.

KELLY: And at the end of the day, no answers in this report to some of the big questions on Iraq's future. The NIE focuses narrowly on how events may unfold over the next six to 12 months. Paul Pillar says it does provide some glimmers of hope over that period.

Mr. PILLAR: But what it does not do is provide any real hope for a light at the end of the tunnel. Once you go beyond the six-to-twelve-month timeframe, there is still the question of whether a continued counterinsurgency strategy is eventually going to result in what the president called in his speech this week a free Iraq.

KELLY: For an answer to that question, President Bush says he is looking ahead to the next big report on Iraq's stability. That's the one being drafted now by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. Their report card is due out next month.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read that NIE report at npr.org.

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Report: Iraqi Leaders 'Unable to Govern'

Demonstrators asked the government and coalition forces for better security in the neighborhood. i i

Demonstrators asked the government and coalition forces for better security in the neighborhood. Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators asked the government and coalition forces for better security in the neighborhood.

Demonstrators asked the government and coalition forces for better security in the neighborhood.

Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Read more from the unclassified key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate:

The Iraqi government will become "more precarious" over the next six to 12 months and its security forces, while showing some improvement, still cannot function without outside help, according to a report released Wednesday.

The 10-page document, a declassified summary of a more detailed National Intelligence Estimate, also concludes that Iraq's sectarian groups have yet to reconcile and al Qaida in Iraq is still able to conduct deadly—and highly visible—attacks.

"Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," the report stated.

The findings, though, did point to some signs of progress in Iraq, and they could bolster the Bush administration's argument that coalition forces need to stay in Iraq in order to avoid further chaos and bloodshed.

The report represents the collective judgment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organization of each military service. It comes at a time of renewed tensions between Washington and Baghdad, and as the Bush administration prepares a mid-September report on how well its so-called surge strategy in Iraq is working.

As the debate over Iraq heats up, one vital question is how well Iraqi troops have performed. The intelligence report says that the Iraqi Security Forces, working alongside the United States, have performed "adequately." However, it also says they haven't shown enough improvement to conduct operations without U.S. and coalition forces, and are still reliant on others for key support.

Indeed, the report—the first on Iraq since President Bush introduced his new strategy for the war in January—provides fodder for both sides in the debate over what to do in Iraq. President Bush and his supporters are likely to highlight the relatively positive aspects of the report, such as the prediction that Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months. Critics of the surge strategy, though, are likely to focus on assessments such as this: "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 report paints a dire picture of the situation in Iraq, but also warns of the consequences of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, as President Bush has repeatedly done, most recently at a speech in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday. A sudden U.S. withdrawal, the report predicts, would lead to a flare up of sectarian violence and would "paralyze the [Iraqi] government."

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. 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.

Democrats wasted no time responding to the intelligence report. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the report confirms what most Americans already 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."

"Every day that we continue to stick to the president's flawed strategy is a day that America is not as secure as it could be," said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

With additional reporting from the Associated Press.

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