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. intelligence analysts conclude in a new National Intelligence Estimate released Friday.
Despite uneven improvements, the analysts concluded that the level of overall violence is high, Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled, and al Qaeda in Iraq is still able to conduct highly visible attacks.
"Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," the 10-page document 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.
The report says that Iraqi Security Forces, working alongside the United States, have performed "adequately." However, it says they have not shown enough improvement to conduct operations without U.S. and coalition forces and are still reliant on others for key support.
A senior security official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity before the report's release that the report finds there has been "some progress with Sunnis" fighting against al Qaeda. Sunni insurgents in some areas have turned on al Qaeda in a program in which U.S. commanders negotiate cease-fires and try to incorporate the fighters into Iraqi government security forces.
The report also warns, as some commanders on the ground have, that extremists could attempt sensational attacks to create a "mini-Tet"- a reference to the 1968 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Tet offensive that undermined public support for the Vietnam War in the United States.
Tet is the lunar new year.
The assessment expresses deep doubts that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government can overcome sectarian divisions and meet benchmarks intended to promote political unity, The New York Times reported in Thursday editions. The report cited unidentified officials
The assessment by the nation's 16 intelligence agencies comes at a time of renewed tension in relations between Washington and Baghdad.
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." The White House denied Mr. Bush was backing away from al-Maliki, but it was a lukewarm endorsement compared with last November, when Bush called al-Maliki "the right guy for Iraq."
In other developments:
Al-Maliki, on a trip to Syria, quickly lashed back at U.S. criticism. He called it "discourteous," said no one has the right to impose timetables on his elected government, and that Iraq can "find friends elsewhere."
Under pressure to reaffirm his backing for the Iraqi leader, Mr. Bush said Wednesday that "Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, good man with a difficult job, and I support him."
Echoing the frustration of many in Washington, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said this week that progress on national issues had been "extremely disappointing and frustrating to all concerned."
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.
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.
Meanwhile, President Bush's conflicting remarks on the effectiveness of the Iraqi government have prompted comments in the Arab media which described them as yet another sign of the failure of U.S. policies in the war torn country.
Commenting in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, one of the most influential papers in the region, analyst Zuhair Qusaybati described the American and Iraqi leaders' remarks as a reflection of "feeble discourse, failure and depression in Washington and confusion in Baghdad over its destiny, with no sign of hope for a solution."
An editorial in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times noted that Mr. Bush's varying statements about al-Maliki were symptomatic of the administration's haphazard approach to Iraq.
"The worry, per se, is not just why al-Maliki and his administration did not perform well, but, more importantly, the question, what does all this trial and error strategy on the part of the U.S. mean for the future of this hapless nation and its people?" asked the English-language editorial.
The view was echoed by Egypt's state-owned Al-Ahram daily which dedicated its main editorial to a review of U.S. policy in Iraq, from its alleged favoring of Shiites over Sunnis to the predicament of al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government falling into disfavor.
"The sectarian conflict in which Iraq and Iraqis suffer comes from the policies of American occupation," it said.