Iraq's future: "Gradual decline" or "rapid deterioration"?

The "key judgments" of the new NIE say Iraq isn't immersed in a "civil war." It's worse.

By Tim Grieve
Published February 2, 2007 4:37PM (EST)

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has just released the declassified "key judgments" of the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq. Among them: It's not fair to say that Iraq is in a "civil war," but only because that term isn't broad enough to cover the scope of the problems the country is facing. And meddling by Iran and Iraq's other neighbors "is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability," but only because Iraq's "internal sectarian dynamics" are fully capable of causing enough trouble on their own.

The NIE offers both an assessment of current conditions in Iraq and a prediction of how things will go in the next 12 to 18 months. As for the present, the NIE says that "the term 'civil war' does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qaida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence." Nonetheless, it says, "the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements."

As for the future? The NIE predicts that conditions in and around Iraq would "almost certainly" deteriorate dramatically if U.S. forces were "withdrawn rapidly" during the next 12 to 18 months. On the other hand, it doesn't predict much of an improvement if U.S. forces stay. "The challenges confronting Iraqis are daunting," the NIE says, "and multiple factors are driving the current trajectory of the country's security and political evolution." The NIE says the Shiites are insecure about their hold on power; many Sunnis "remain unwilling to accept their minority status" and "believe the central government is illegitimate and incompetent"; and neither side has the "unifying leaders" needed for reconciliation.

Even more damning for the Bush administration and its escalation plan: "Despite real improvements, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) -- particularly the Iraqi police -- will be hard pressed in the next 12-18 months to execute significantly increased security responsibilities, and particularly to operate independently against Shia militias with success."

The NIE says that unless there is "measurable progress" soon in resolving "Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of security forces and the state in general, and all sides' ready recourse to violence," the overall security situation in Iraq will "continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006." If Iraqi and U.S. forces are able to decrease the level of violence, the NIE says that "Iraqi leaders could have an opportunity to begin the process of political compromise necessary for longer term stability, political progress, and economic recovery." But even if violence is diminished, the NIE says, "Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the time frame of this Estimate."

Could it be any worse? Yes, the NIE says, it could be and it may still be. "A number of identifiable internal security and political triggering events, including sustained mass sectarian killings, assassination of major religious and political leaders, and a complete Sunni defection from the government have the potential to convulse severely Iraq's security environment," the NIE says. "Should these events take place, they could spark an abrupt increase in communal and insurgent violence and shift Iraq's trajectory from gradual decline to rapid deterioration with grave humanitarian, political, and security consequences." Among the possibilities then: "Chaos leading to partition," the "emergence of a Shia strongman" or "anarchic fragmentation of power."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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