U.S. Intel Chiefs Paint a Grim Picture of Iraq

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Just in case the politicians needed reminding of the urgency of turning things around in Iraq, two of the nation's most senior intelligence officers on Tuesday delivered a gloomy assessment of the war. General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, warned at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that the sectarian violence between Iraq's Shia and Sunnis has gotten so out of hand it "now presents the greatest immediate threat to Iraq's stability and future." And the Pentagon's top spy, Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, testified with Hayden and was equally downbeat. "Although a significant breakdown of central authority has not occurred, Iraq has moved closer to this possibility," Maples said.

The grim testimony from the two spymasters came shortly after the chief of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, tried his best to offer the same committee a rosier picture of the war. Abizaid insisted that conditions in Iraq weren't "nearly as bad" as last August when he had publicly warned that the country might be slipping into civil war.

Hayden, however, has seen little that has pleased him the past eight months. In fact, he concluded, Iraq has been going steadily downhill since last February when the bombing of the al-Askari Shi'ite shrine in Samarra sparked a frenzy of sectarian killing. Hayden ticked off the problems: "There remains in Iraq today an active insurgency, a broad al-Qaeda offensive targeting us and Iraqis, criminality and lawlessness on a broad scale, rival militias competing for power."

Political leaders have been unwilling or unable to rein in militias or death squads. Meanwhile, Iran "is stoking violence" and al-Qaeda "continues to foment sectarian violence," he warned. "Even if the central government gains broader support from Iraq's communities, implementing the reforms needed to improve life for all Iraq will be extremely difficult."

Maples saw some glimmers of progress, such as the conviction of Saddam Hussein, the increased combat capability of Iraqi security forces, and "moderate growth" in the Iraqi economy. But that's about it. "Despite ongoing Iraqi government and coalition operations against terrorists, Sunni Arab insurgent groups, and Shia militias, violence in Iraq continues to increase in scope, complexity and lethality," Maples said.

Overall, insurgent attacks have more than doubled from January to October, from an average of 70 a day to an average of 180 a day. The recent U.S.-Iraqi offensive against insurgents and militias in Baghdad achieved only "limited success," he testified. Iraqi forces haven't been able to control areas U.S. forces have cleared for them. "Once coalition forces moved on, attacks returned to and even surpassed preoperational levels," the DIA chief testified.

But the intel chiefs are even more pessimistic over the prospects for Iraq if the U.S. is unable to ensure sufficient stability for the central government to exercise form of sovereignty over the country. The consequences of a failed Iraqi state would be "catastrophic" for Iraqis, Hayden warned. "It would plunge them deeper into chaos and the road out of it would be longer." The instability for the rest of region would be "almost as bad." The temptation of Iran and Syria to intervene "may become irresistible." And, Hayden worries, it "would embolden the worst of our enemies — certainly al-Qaeda."