Dealing with dark reality in Iraq

Published December 7, 2004 9:34PM (EST)

With the exception of a few exuberant Washington war hawks, virtually nobody believed building a post-Saddam Iraq would be easy. But while President Bush sticks to sunny refrains such as "We're making progress" and "Freedom is on the march," evidence to the contrary keeps exploding in the administration's face.

The latest less-than-shocking bombshell is today's New York Times report on the CIA's assessment of Iraq as recently as mid-November.

"A classified cable sent by the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief in Baghdad has warned that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon, according to government officials. The cable, sent late last month as the officer ended a yearlong tour, presented a bleak assessment on matters of politics, economics and security, the officials said. They said its basic conclusions had been echoed in briefings presented by a senior C.I.A. official who recently visited Iraq.

"The officials described the two assessments as having been 'mixed,' saying that they did describe Iraq as having made important progress, particularly in terms of its political process, and credited Iraqis with being resilient. But over all, the officials described the station chief's cable in particular as an unvarnished assessment of the difficulties ahead in Iraq. They said it warned that the security situation was likely to get worse, including more violence and sectarian clashes, unless there were marked improvements soon on the part of the Iraqi government, in terms of its ability to assert authority and to build the economy."

With Washington's partisan war raging on over a bitterly politicized CIA, a steady flood of intelligence leaks, and the castrated political orphan that the congressional intelligence reform bill has become, administration supporters will no doubt argue that the CIA cable made public Tuesday is just the latest salvo fired by disgruntled spooks who want to put holes in the president and his new DCI and clean-up man, Porter Goss. The truth of the matter, they will say, is that things in Iraq are looking up.

They will, of course, also dismiss or skip over ominous reports from the "liberal" media showing that they couldn't be more wrong. Say, for example, Edward Wong's New York Times report from Baghdad on Sunday, "Mayhem in Iraq Is Starting to Look Like a Civil War":

"In recent weeks, at least one new Shiite militia has formed -- not in opposition to the Americans, but to exact revenge against the Sunnis.

"Assaults by Iraqis on other Iraqis have taken grisly and audacious turns lately. In October, insurgents dressed as policemen waylaid three minibuses carrying 49 freshly trained Iraqi Army soldiers -- most or all of them Shiites traveling south on leave -- and executed them. Pilgrims going south to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala have also been gunned down. In response, Shiite leaders in the southern city of Basra began telling young men last month that it was time for revenge. They organized hundreds of Shiites into the Anger Brigades, the latest of many armed groups that have announced their formation in the anarchy of the new Iraq. The stated goal of the brigades is to kill extremist Sunni Arabs in the north Babil area, widely known as the 'Triangle of Death,' where many Shiite security officers and pilgrims have been killed.

"'The Wahhabis and Salafis have come together to harm fellow Muslims and have begun killing anyone affiliated with the Shiite sect,' Dhia al-Mahdi, the leader of the Anger Brigades, said in a written statement. 'The Anger Brigades will be dispatched to those areas where these germs are, and there will be battles.'"

The Bush White House itself has consistently shot down critics of its Iraq policy as pessimists who are out of touch. Few would realistically expect a wartime administration -- especially this one -- to be publicly self-critical, let alone admit the need for a dramatic change of course. But it is growing more and more obvious that the U.S.'s hopes for Iraq may have to be drastically scaled back. At what point will the Bush administration be forced to accept reality?

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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