Saturday, February 03, 2007

U.S. agencies offer dim outlook on Iraq

U.S. agencies offer dim outlook on Iraq
By Mark Mazzetti and David Stout
Copyright by The International Herald Tribune
February 2, 2007

WASHINGTON: A much-anticipated assessment by America's intelligence agencies describes a worsening cycle of chaos in Iraq and predicts that sectarian strife will continue to fracture the country without bold actions by Iraqi politicians.

Even if violence is diminished, the assessment warns, prospects for a political reconciliation are dim "given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene."

The assessment, "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead," begins with a blunt conclusion: "Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of the security forces and the state in general, and all sides' ready recourse to violence are collectively driving an increase in communal and insurgent violence and political extremism.

"Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."

The term "civil war" accurately describes key elements of the conflict, including "the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities," the report says, but the overall struggle is more complicated. The report points to a lethal stew of Iraqi-on-Iraqi bloodshed across and within ethnic lines, Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks, "and widespread criminally motivated violence."

The assessment contains the consensus judgments of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community and is sure to fuel the debate within Congress and between lawmakers and the White House over what to do next.

The report also argues against a withdrawal of U.S. forces, concluding that a rapid military pullout "almost certainly would lead" to carnage worse in scale and scope. Several judgments in the report were first reported Friday in The Washington Post.

There are a few grains of optimism. The Iraqi security forces have shown "real improvements," the report asserts, even though they are unlikely to be able to assume greater responsibilities and battle Shiite militias successfully in the next 12 to 18 months.

And the assessment says that some developments "could" help to reverse the downward spiral: broader Sunni acceptance of the political structure; concessions by Shiites and Kurds to "create space" for Sunni acceptance; and "a bottom-up approach" to help mend frayed tribal and religious relationships.

But prospects for better relations between Shiites and Sunnis are clouded by the Shiites' deep feelings of insecurity spawned by decades of subordination by the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein — and the Sunnis' lack of respect for the central government and reluctance to accept their minority status now. Moreover, the Kurds, while "willing" to take part in building a new Iraq, are reluctant to surrender the autonomy they have achieved recently, the report says.

The Kurds are a particular concern to Turkey, which does not want Iraq to disintegrate and is determined to eliminate the safe haven in northern Iraq for a Turkish Kurdish terrorist group, the assessment notes. But while neighbors of Iraq, especially Iran and Syria, "influence and are influenced by" events in Iraq, they probably do not have enough strength to stabilize Iraq because that country's "internal sectarian dynamics" are self-sustaining, the documents states.

The report says Iraq could break apart "with grave humanitarian, political and security consequences" through a deadly mix of sectarian killings, assassinations of political and religious leaders, and the complete Sunni repudiation of the government. Moreover, it says, many professional and entrepreneurial Iraqi people have already fled their country.

Should the worst happen and the country fall apart completely, the assessment sees three possible outcomes, all dire. The first possible outcome of widespread fighting could produce "de facto partition" into "three mutually antagonistic parts" and spawn "fierce violence" among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds for years. A second possibility is that a new strongman could emerge, a Shiite this time, instead of the new democracy envisioned by the Bush administration. Finally, there could be anarchy, with resulting instability and bloodshed.

John O'Neil contributed reporting.

4th U.S. chopper goes down

An American Apache attack helicopter was shot down Friday just north of Baghdad and both crew members were killed, an American military official said, Marc Santora reported Baghdad.

It was the fourth U.S. helicopter to crash in two weeks, a disturbing trend that military commanders acknowledged had them concerned.

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that attacks by militants have "been more effective against our helicopters in the last couple of weeks."

Saying that he had looked closely at the issue, Pace said he did not know if militants were using a new approach or growing more skilled at attacking helicopters, or whether the losses were a reflection of how much the military had come to rely on helicopters in combat.

militant group claimed credit for shooting down the helicopter hours before the U.S. military confirmed the incident. The militants promised to post a video of the attack on the Internet.

Separately, U.S. forces engaged in a fierce overnight battle with militants in the western city of Ramadi. They came under attack Thursday night as Sunni insurgents directed mortar fire at the main U.S. headquarters in the city, witnesses and military officials said.

Troops sent into two Ramadi neighborhoods were ambushed, witnesses said. The city has been the scene of some of fiercest street fighting of the past four years.

The American military reported no casualties in the incident. But neighborhood residents said that civilians were caught in the middle of the battle. Abdullah Saleh, a doctor at the main Ramadi hospital, said 4 people were killed and 12 were wounded.

In Falluja, in Anbar Province, the Sunni chairman of the City Council, Ali Hussein, an outspoken critic of Al Qaeda, was gunned down. He was the third city council leader to be killed this year.


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