Iraq: Still No Light at Tunnel’s End

While there have been some improvements in Iraq’s security situation over the past seven months, the level of overall violence remains "high" with only modest improvements possible over the next six to 12 months, according to a new study by the US intelligence community released here Thursday.

At the same time, prospects for a political settlement to Iraq’s multiple internal conflicts – particularly between the Shi’ite majority and the Sunni minority – appear bleak. The Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to "become more precarious over the next six to 12 months," according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which reflects the consensus view of Washington’s 16 intelligence agencies.

"Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled; AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," according to the report’s 10-page "Key Judgments," the only section of the report that was declassified.

"We assess, to the extent that Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), 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," it added.

The NIE, entitled "Prospects for Iraq’s Stability: Some Security Progress But Political Reconciliation Elusive," comes as the administration is preparing its own report on how well its "surge" strategy – which added 30,000 US troops to the 135,000 who were already in Iraq in January – has been working.

The surge, which also included the application of more aggressive counterinsurgency techniques, was designed to reduce sectarian violence and improve security conditions, particularly in Baghdad, in order to encourage political leaders on all sides in Iraq to make the compromises necessary to achieve national reconciliation.

The administration’s report, which will be presented to Congress in mid-September by Washington’s overall commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and its ambassador there, Ryan Crocker, will re-launch the Congressional debate over Washington’s next steps in its four-and-a-half-year-old occupation.

Democratic lawmakers, most of whom opposed the surge, have been pushing for Congress to adopt a timetable for the withdrawal of all US combat forces from Iraq.

They have also called for changing the mission of the remaining troops to training Iraqi forces, protecting US installations and personnel, and mounting Special Forces operations against AQI and other terrorist targets.

President George W. Bush, who has vowed to veto any legislation that includes a mandatory timetable for withdrawal, has indicated – most recently in an uncompromising speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention – that he believes the surge has shifted the balance of forces in Iraq and should continue well into next year if not beyond.

At the moment, he appears to have the support of most Republican lawmakers. However, Sen. John Warner, the influential ranking Republican member and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, broke ranks with his party’s leadership Thursday by calling on Bush to begin withdrawing troops no later than the end of this year.

Warner, who just returned from his latest trip to Iraq, joined Democrats in suggesting that withdrawing US troops would help persuade the various Iraqi factions that national reconciliation was urgent.

"I really, firmly believe the Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister al-Maliki, let our troops down," he said after meeting with Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House’s so-called "Iraq Czar.”

The latest NIE, which follows one released just before the surge took effect in February, is likely to be used as ammunition by both sides of the impending debate.

Despite its dour tone, the administration will likely seize on a number of passages in the document that supports its view – that the six-month-old surge strategy designed to curb violence in Baghdad has brought results and should continue well into next year.

In particular, the NIE notes that the more aggressive counterinsurgency tactics deployed under the surge has checked the "steep escalation of rates of violence" and led to "measurable but uneven improvements" in the overall security situation.

In addition, the NIE warns that "changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counter terrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far."

That assessment will likely be used by Bush and his Republican supporters to argue against Democratic efforts to redefine the US military mission in Iraq, let alone to begin drawing down its combat forces.

But the NIE’s bleak assessment of the political situation in Iraq is likely to fuel Democratic arguments that, despite improvements in the security situation, prospects for national reconciliation remain as distant as ever.

"Political and security trajectories in Iraq continue to be driven primarily by Shi’ite insecurity about retaining political dominance, widespread Sunni unwillingness to accept a diminished political status, factional rivalries within the sectarian communities resulting in armed conflict, and the actions of extremists such as AQI and elements of the Sadrist Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia that try to fuel sectarian violence," according to the NIE.

"Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments," it noted, suggesting implicitly that such a shift was not in view.

Indeed, those passages were seized on by several other Democratic presidential candidates virtually as soon as the report was released as evidence that the surge has failed.

"With no progress on political reconciliation between the various sects in Iraq, it is clear that President Bush’s tactic of troop escalation has failed to achieve its goal of convincing Iraqi leaders that they must take bold steps to promote stability and reconciliation in Iraq," said Sen. Christopher Dodd.

Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign released a statement asserting that the NIE "underscores the fundamental truth that we cannot continue to substitute the bravery of our troops for a true commitment from the Iraqi government to resolve the grievances at the heart of their civil war…"

The NIE also noted that expectations both within Iraq and among its neighbors that US troops will indeed begin to draw down at some point in the next six to 12 months will likely fuel sectarian violence and intra-sectarian conflict as all of the various forces in play will jockey to fill the resulting power vacuum.

While the ISF has improved its performance over the last six months, according to the report, it still depends on US forces for "important aspects of logistics and combat support." While the government is expanding the Iraqi Army to fill critical gaps, .”..we judge that significant security gains from those programs will take at least six to 12 months, and probably longer, to materialize," it said.

Growing Sunni resistance to AQI – much ballyhooed as a major strategic success by the administration and its supporters – offers, according to the report, "the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi Government accepts and supports them.”

That appears unlikely, the NIE suggests, due to fears by the government’s Shi’ite leaders that "these (Sunni) groups will ultimately side with armed opponents of the government."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.