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damned if we do, damned if we don't

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WASHINGTON - Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation in the next 12 to 18 months, a collaborative report by 16 U.S. spy agencies says, raising uncertainty about the prospect for withdrawing American troops that are shoring up the government.

The latest National Intelligence Estimate, released Friday, also concludes that growing polarization, inadequate security forces and a propensity to use violence as a tool are creating a daunting situation.

The Office of the National Intelligence Director made public an unclassified summary of the document - entitled "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead." President Bush was briefed on its conclusions on Thursday.

"We think it is accurate," Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said in a briefing on the document. "We would emphasize the `hard-pressed,' because we will be pressing them hard and the Iraqi people will be pressing the government hard."


A 'civil war'?

Intelligence analysts crafted the assessment knowing that its findings were likely to become public. In their report, they tried to avoid one of the most politically charged questions: Is Iraq in the midst of a civil war?

In their sober assessment, the government's top analysts instead found that the term "civil war" doesn't capture the complex situation in Iraq, which includes attacks on U.S. and coalition forces and struggles even within Iraqi sects, such as ****e Muslims.

Yet, the estimate said, the term "civil war" accurately reflects key elements of the problems in Iraq. That includes the hardening of sectarian identities, "a sea change in the character of the violence," and the displacement of populations.

The estimate painted a picture of a country hanging in the balance. It warned of grave consequences from events that could trigger even more violence, such as sustained mass killings, the assassination of a religious or political leader or a complete Sunni defection from government.

Ominous consequences

The possibilities "have the potential to convulse severely Iraq's security environment," the analysts found.

The estimate also warned of ominous consequences if the violence was left unchecked. "Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress ... we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate," the report said.

The Bush White House saw the document as support for the president's new strategy and troop buildup because it said that coalition forces, resources and operations remain an essential stabilizing element in Iraq.

If coalition forces were to leave in the next 18 months, the estimate said, "we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq."

It would also intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government and hurt efforts aimed at national reconciliation, the report found.

The estimate also warns that a rapid withdrawal would hamper Iraqi security forces and encourage Iraq's neighbors - by invitation or unilaterally - to intervene.

The report noted that already Iran is providing lethal support to select ****e groups and Syria is not doing enough to secure its borders.

The estimate said that some positive developments could - analysts stressed "could" - help reverse negative trends. They include broader Sunni acceptance of the political structure and concessions on the part of ****es and Kurds to make more room for Sunni participation.

Report timing important

Congressional officials have been pressing Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte for a completed estimate since before the November elections. It comes as Congress is considering resolutions about Bush's decision to send thousands of additional troops into Iraq as part of an overhaul to his war policy. He has also said the United States will put more pressure on the Iraqis to repair the security situation.

Negroponte has been nominated to move from his current job to become the No. 2 person at the state Department. The administration's decision to release the National Intelligence Estimate marks a new way of doing business at the National Intelligence Council.

The 12 to 15 high-level estimates that it produces annually contain the best thinking from the nation's 16 spy agencies. But these typically classified reports have been leaked recently, to the frustration of administration officials.

Even some Republicans saw the estimate's release as a moment to criticize the administration's course.

"The NIE makes clear that we cannot continue the same stubborn strategy that has brought us to this point in Iraq," said Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. "It also makes clear that we cannot just pull our forces out as if that decision can be made in a vacuum and without consequence."

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