The Bush administration's robust assertions that the situation in Iraq would improve with next month's elections were badly shaken Tuesday with the leak of a gloomy end-of-tour cable from the departing CIA station chief in Baghdad. The bleak assessment, reported in Tuesday's New York Times, warned that Iraq would descend even deeper into violent chaos unless the government was able to assert its authority and deliver concrete economic improvements.
The cable arrived on a day when U.S. forces recorded the death of the 1,000th soldier to be killed in combat since the beginning of the war. In all, 1,275 U.S. service personnel have died since the invasion on March 20 of last year. This figure includes accidents, suicides and other deaths not classified as "killed in action." A total of 9,765 U.S. troops have been wounded.
No official totals of Iraqi deaths are available. Estimates range from 14,000 to tens of thousands of civilians and around 5,000 troops.
The classified assessment was sent to CIA headquarters in Virginia late last month as the officer ended a yearlong tour in Iraq. It was bolstered by a similar assessment from a second CIA officer, Michael Kostiw, who serves as a senior advisor to the agency's chief, Porter Goss. The outlook offered by the station chief echoes several similar warnings from officials in Washington and Baghdad. An intelligence estimate prepared for the White House last August said that Iraq's security situation could remain tenuous at best until the end of 2005, and warned that the country was at risk of civil war.
But the latest warning is particularly ill-timed for the White House, which has been focused on assuring Americans that the situation in Iraq would improve with the coming elections. It is also a personal embarrassment for Goss, a former Republican congressman who had made it his mission to stem the flow of embarrassing leaks from the agency. In a memo last month, Goss wrote that the agency had a dual task -- to provide intelligence and to support administration policies. "As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies," the memo said.
As station chief, the unnamed CIA official supervised more than 300 operatives, the largest intelligence operation since the Vietnam War, and their assessment carries authority. While the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey Jr., initially raised no objections to the CIA assessment, the New York Times reported that the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, had filed a lengthy message of dissent in which he argued that the U.S. had made considerable progress in controlling the insurgency.
Bush did not directly comment on the CIA report Tuesday, but in a speech to U.S. Marines in Camp Pendleton, Calif., he described the war in Iraq as part of the global struggle against terrorism and warned: "As Election Day approaches, we can expect further violence from the terrorists.
"You see, the terrorists understand what is at stake. They know they have no future in a free Iraq, because free people will never choose their own enslavement. They know democracy will give Iraqis a stake in the future of their country." Throughout his speech, Bush referred to the insurgents, who are largely Iraqis opposed to the U.S. occupation, as terrorists.
In conversations with reporters about the assessment Tuesday, CIA officials admitted that efforts to train local Iraqi security forces were not keeping pace with the growth of an increasingly violent insurgency. So far, the official strength of the Iraqi security forces is put at 83,000, although only 47,000 have been fully armed and trained.
The new Iraqi government can also expect a new wave of violence if the elections are boycotted by the country's Sunni minority.