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Intel report finds Baghdad government shaky, security forces still in need of help
Iraqi policeman looks at a body of dead colleague outside the hospital in Baqouba, capital of Iraq's Diyala province, 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, Thursday Aug. 23, 2007. On the way to a scene where al-Qaeda gunmen attacked the house of Sheik Younis, a dignitary who urged the people to fight al-Qaeda, in the village of Ibrahim al-Yahya one of the Iraqi Police vehicles turned upside down, killing two policemen and wounding five others, police said. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — The Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months and its security forces have not improved enough to operate without outside help, U.S. spy agencies conclude in a new assessment of the country’s political and military fortunes.
    Despite some uneven improvements, the analysts concluded that the level of overall violence is high, Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled, and al-Qaida in Iraq is still able to conduct highly visible attacks.
    ‘‘Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively,’’ the 10-page document, a declassified summary of a more detailed National Intelligence Estimate, concludes. A copy was obtained by The Associated Press in advance of its release Thursday.
    The report represents the collaborative judgments of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organization of each military service. It comes at a time of renewed tensions between Washington and Baghdad, and as the Bush administration prepares a mid-September report on how its troop buildup in Iraq is working.
    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the report confirms what most Americans already know: ‘‘Our troops are mired in an Iraqi civil war and the president’s escalation strategy has failed to produce the political results he promised to our troops and the American people.’’
    ‘‘Every day that we continue to stick to the president’s flawed strategy is a day that America is not as secure as it could be,’’ said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
    The estimate says that Iraqi Security Forces, working alongside the United States, have performed ‘‘adequately.’’ However, it says they haven’t shown enough improvement to conduct operations without U.S. and coalition forces and are still reliant on others for key support.
    The findings could provide support for the Bush administration’s argument that coalition forces need to stay in Iraq in order to avoid letting security lapse, should they withdraw from certain areas.
    The report predicts that the Iraqi government ‘‘will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months’’ because of criticism from members of Iraqi Shiite parties, Iraq’s top Shiite religious figure Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Sunni and Kurdish factions.
    The assessment also expresses deep doubts that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can overcome sectarian divisions and meet benchmarks intended to promote political unity. It finds that Shiite factions have looked at ways to constrain him.
    ‘‘The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki’s vulnerability to alternative coalitions,’’ the document says.
    But the assessment says al-Maliki will continue to benefit from the belief among Shiite leaders that ‘‘searching for a replacement could paralyze the government.’’
    President Bush had appeared on Tuesday to be distancing himself from the Iraqi leader when he said at a North American summit in Canada: ‘‘Clearly, the Iraqi government’s got to do more.’’
    But Bush voiced encouragement for al-Maliki a day later, and an administration official said Thursday that, despite the assessment of the limitations of the current government, there is no talk at the White House of a need for change in the Iraqi leadership.
    The administration believes that anyone would face the same difficulties as al-Maliki, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt an expected statement from national security adviser Stephen Hadley.
    Overall, the report finds that Iraq’s security will continue to ‘‘improve modestly’’ over the next six to 12 months, provided that coalition forces mount strong counterinsurgency operations and mentor Iraqi forces.
    But even then, ‘‘levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance,’’ according to the unclassified judgments.
    Slow political progress in Iraq is at the heart of the U.S. military troop buildup Bush announced in January. The president justified sending more troops to increase security and give Iraqi political leaders the breathing space to reconcile.
    U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, are due to report next month on how much progress is being made with the buildup, which now has some 162,000 troops, the highest of the four-year-old war.
    The intelligence report warns against scaling back the mission of U.S. forces, an argument the Bush administration could use to support a continuation of its current troop surge.
    Analysts found that changing the U.S. military’s mission from its current focus — countering insurgents and stabilizing the country — in favor of supporting Iraqi forces and stopping terrorists would hurt the security gains of the last six months.
    The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group report recommended reducing the number of troops and putting them in a support and training role for Iraqi forces, along with a small U.S. counterterrorist force to target al-Qaida in Iraq.
    That study’s recommendations are increasingly being embraced by Capitol Hill and the White House as a way to begin extricating the United States from the war.
    The report also finds:
    — Sunni Arab resistance to al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni group blamed for significant civilian bloodshed, has expanded in the last six to nine months. However, it hasn’t created broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi government.
    — Iraq’s neighbors will continue to focus on improving their leverage in Iraq, expecting the U.S. and its allies to leave. ‘‘Assistance to armed groups, especially from Iran, exacerbates the violence inside Iraq.’’
    — Security improvements have been brought by Sunni groups fighting al-Qaida in Iraq, but the same groups may eventually pose a threat to the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
    Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven, Ben Feller and Pamela Hess contributed to this report.

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