WASHINGTON – A civil war in Iraq could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, pitting the region's rival Islamic sects against each another, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in an unusually frank assessment Tuesday.
"If chaos were to descend upon Iraq or the forces of democracy were to be defeated in that country ... this would have implications for the rest of the Middle East region and, indeed, the world," Negroponte said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats.
Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad before taking over as the nation's top intelligence official last April.
Iraqis have faced a chain of attacks and reprisals since bombs destroyed the gold dome of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last week. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died, including more than 65 who were killed Tuesday by suicide attackers, car bombers and insurgents firing mortars.
President Bush condemned the surge in violence and said Iraqis must make a choice between "a free society or a society dictated ... by evil people who will kill innocents." Later, in an interview with ABC News' "World News Tonight," he said he did not believe the escalation of civil unrest would lead to a general civil war.
Negroponte tried to focus on progress in Iraq, but he acknowledged a civil war would be a "serious setback" to the global War on Terror.
"The consequences for the people of Iraq would be catastrophic," he said. "Clearly, it would seriously jeopardize the democratic political process on which they are presently embarked. And one can only begin to imagine what the political outcomes would be."
Saudi Arabia and Jordan could support Iraq's Sunnis, Negroponte said. And Iran, run by a Shiite Islamic theocracy, "has already got quite close ties with some of the extremist elements" inside Iraq, he added.
While Iraq's neighbors "initially might be reluctant" to get involved in a broader Sunni-Shiite conflict, "that might well be a temptation," Negroponte said.
Still, he told senators he is seeing progress in the overall political and security situation in Iraq. "And if we continue to make that kind of progress, yes, we can win in Iraq," he said.
Democrats noted that Negroponte wouldn't go quite as far as Bush did in his January State of the Union address. "We are winning," Bush said then.
James Jeffrey, the State Department coordinator for Iraq, told reporters Tuesday that Iraqi security forces have managed to establish a normal and calm situation -- "by Iraq standards." The level of violence, he said, was about the same as before the shrine bombing.
At the Senate hearing, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, painted a similarly stark picture of Afghanistan.
While the government has made progress in disarming private militias, Maples said, his agency estimates that violence from the Taliban and other anti-coalition groups in Afghanistan increased 20 percent last year.
"Insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001, and will be active this spring," Maples said in his written statement.
Afghan insurgents increased their suicide attacks almost fourfold and more than doubled their use of improvised explosive devices, he said.
Also at the hearing:
--Negroponte would not provide an updated assessment of the number of nuclear weapons believed to be in North Korea's arsenal, although a former DIA head has previously said Pyongyang has one or two.
"We assess that they probably have nuclear weapons, as they claim that they do, but we don't know for a fact that they've got such weapons," Negroponte said. To provide a number "would merely be an extrapolation or a speculation on our part."
--Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was critical of the Bush administration's reliance on the six-party talks aimed at disarming North Korea.
"I worry that the six-party talks have really devolved into the Chinese talks, and the Chinese have their own agenda," she said. "I'm not sure that the six-party talks is the only route we should be following."
--On Venezuela, Negroponte said U.S. intelligence expects President Hugo Chavez to deepen his relationship with Cuban President Fidel Castro and "seek closer economic, military and diplomatic ties with Iran and North Korea."
Negroponte said the U.S. is concerned about Chavez's arms purchases, using profits from oil production. "I would say that it's clear that he is spending hundreds of millions, if not more, for his very extravagant foreign policy" at the expense of the impoverished Venezuelan population, he said.