WASHINGTON – The Iraqi government will be "hard pressed" to reach the political reconciliation seen as necessary to end the sectarian violence tearing the country apart, according to the public version of the latest National Intelligence Estimate released Friday.
Although the estimate offers a grim outlook for Iraq nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein's government — saying that the term " 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict" — the Bush administration quickly pointed to the estimate as proof that the military strategy the president outlined in a national address on Jan. 10 is sorely needed.
The estimate also provided fodder for critics for the president's strategy, which is facing the possibility of a bipartisan rebuke in the Senate in the form of a vote on a resolution.
Briefing reporters on Friday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the document is proof positive that Iraq needs America's help.
"It makes clear the challenges we face. It does suggest that we can succeed with the right policies, and we think we've developed the right policy, the right strategy, the right approach. And makes it clear once again, as the president has been saying, that the consequences of failure are grave indeed," Hadley said.
Hadley said that while the document was new, the information was what was given to the president while he was developing his new Iraq strategy, the most controversial portion of which is a plan to send 21,500 more combat troops into the country. Hadley discussed the four-page public version of the estimate. The classified version runs 90 pages, Hadley said.
"Iraqi society's growing polarization, the persistent weakness of 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," begins the report, titled "Progress for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead."
"Unless the efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of the 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," it continues.
On the question of civil war, the document chose a careful line, saying the term "does not accurately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq" because of the range of fighting that includes sectarian violence and violence against American forces.
But the document's authors said that civil war can describe major portions of the conflict, which include "hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements," including 1 million estimated Iraqis who have fled to neighboring countries, according a United Nations estimate cited by the document.
Reporters repeatedly pressed Hadley on the issue, asking if this was an indication that the president now believed the situation had actually become a civil war. Hadley did not answer directly, but said the administration agrees with the findings in the estimate.
"The thing I would say is we agree with the description in that paragraph of the realities on the ground," Hadley said, adding that Iraqis aren't necessarily calling it a civil war, and the government is strong enough that it still has say in the country.
"The issue of labels is one we're going to go back and forth on. What the president's job is — in view of that situation on the ground — to develop a policy and a strategy that has the prospect of success," Hadley added.
The report pointed to signs of hope as well as worst-case scenarios that could develop if, for instance, U.S. troops withdrew rapidly from the region, which some Democrats are calling for.
A rapid withdrawal "almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict ... and have adverse consequence for national reconciliation," the report said.
Given a withdrawal, Iraqi security forces "would be unlikely to survive," neighboring countries "might intervene openly in the conflict," civilian casualties would increase and the refugee situation would worsen, and Al Qaeda's efforts to claim portions of Iraq "to plan increased attacks in and outside Iraq" would be be greatly bolstered.
Also, a withdrawal could inflame other regional conflicts, namely between Kurdish groups and Turkey, the report said. Turkey has a stake in keeping the region stable, however, because of historical ire against the Kurdistan People's Congress and its desire to keep the group — seen by Turkey as a terrorist group — at bay.
The report listed three scenarios in frightening language that could emerge if any number of events, which Hadley said are all too realistic. The report said the "triggering events" included sustained mass sectarian killings, a Sunni defection from the government, and assassinations of major religious and political leaders.
"The point here is, and what the president concluded from this, is that the status quo is not stable. With the level of violence we have, particularly in Baghdad, it makes more likely that one of these triggering events that could collapse the government and the Iraqi security forces might occur," Hadley said.
Hadley said one such assassination attempt was just narrowly avoided where a Shia extremist group attempted to launch an attack in Najaf to kill Shia religious leaders.
"If that would have occurred, it could have triggered exactly the kind of thing talked about in the NIE. And that's why the priority for the president is to get the level of violence down to reduce the likelihood that one of these triggering events could actually occur," Hadley said.
The report noted three items that would help reverse negative trends in Iraq, including if more Sunnis began to accept the political structure in Iraq, although the report doesn't shed light on how that would occur.
The report also said "significant concessions by Shia and Kurds" to create more political space for Sunnis could help, as well as a so-called "bottom-up" approach to stabilization that would focus on neighborhood-level efforts to "mend frayed relations ships between tribal and religious groups.
The report does not address the president's troop plan, but it does discuss Iran and Syria, which it says are not as much of a problem as the various internal political divides and propensity for violence among them.
"Nevertheless, Iranian lethal support for select groups of Iraqi Shia militants clearly intensifies the conflict in Iraq," the report said. And "Syria continues to provide safe haven for expatriate Bathists and to take less than adequate measures to stop the flow of foreign jihadists into Iraq."
The effect of Iran and Syria's actions, the report says, tend to put a greater rift between the countries and groups that are aligned along historic religious and cultural boundaries, with Iran and Shiite allies aligning against Arab, Sunni nations and factions.
The president's critics — chiefly Democrats — took the opportunity to lash out at the administration.
Looking at the estimate, "It's abundantly clear that what we need is not a troop surge, but a diplomatic surge, working closely with other countries in the region," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"The public portions of this document underscore the need for a political solution in Iraq that involves all key stakeholders, both within the country and in the region. Rather than the troop escalation the administration has planned, we must step up our diplomatic efforts to bring the bloodshed to an end," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"The president's infusion of additional troops in Iraq is probably the last roll of the dice. But rather than convincing me that this is the right approach, the NIE makes it more clear than ever that the president's plan has little chance of success," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the estimate shows that it's time for the strategy in Iraq to change, but also shows that removing troops quickly " as if that decision can be made in a vacuum and without consequence."
"The focus for Congress and the administration should be on developing strategies that allow us to move ahead and increase the capabilities of Iraq's people, leaders, military and security forces to address internal Iraqi issues," said Hoekstra of Michigan. "There are several paths before us in Iraq, but it is absolutely necessary that Iraq's citizens and leaders do more to secure the future of their country."
In addition to saying the need for more troops in Iraq wasn't supported by the estimate, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes took issue with the amount of time it took to produce the report. Democrats have been calling for the report since the fall.
"This four-month delay has been unacceptable. ... Unfortunately for the troops [Bush] is now sending into harm's way, the president's plan was developed without the benefit of a fully vetted National Intelligence Estimate. Further, because this NIE does not contain the most recent intelligence as to the situation on the ground, there is a concern that its assumptions will be stale and its analysis overtaken by events," said the Texas Democrat.
FOX News' Greg Simmons and The Associated Press contributed to this report.