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U.S. Intelligence Shows Pessimism on Iraq's Future

By Douglas Jehl

09/16/04 "New York Times"
-- WASHINGTON, -- A classified National Intelligence Estimate prepared for President Bush in late July spells out a dark assessment of prospects for Iraq, government officials said Wednesday.

The estimate outlines three possibilities for Iraq through the end of 2005, with the worst case being developments that could lead to civil war, the officials said. The most favorable outcome described is an Iraq whose stability would remain tenuous in political, economic and security terms. 

"There's a significant amount of pessimism," said one government official who has read the document, which runs about 50 pages. The officials declined to discuss the key judgments - concise, carefully written statements of intelligence analysts' conclusions - included in the document. 

The intelligence estimate, the first on Iraq since October 2002, was prepared by the National Intelligence Council and was approved by the National Foreign Intelligence Board under John E. McLaughlin, the acting director of central intelligence. Such estimates can be requested by the White House or Congress, but this one was initiated by the intelligence council under George J. Tenet, who stepped down as director of central intelligence on July 9, the government officials said.

As described by the officials, the pessimistic tone of the new estimate stands in contrast to recent statements by Bush administration officials, including comments on Wednesday by Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, who asserted that progress was being made.

"You know, every step of the way in Iraq there have been pessimists and hand-wringers who said it can't be done," Mr. McClellan said at a news briefing. "And every step of the way, the Iraqi leadership and the Iraqi people have proven them wrong because they are determined to have a free and peaceful future."

President Bush, who was briefed on the new intelligence estimate, has not significantly changed the tenor of his public remarks on the war's course over the summer, consistently emphasizing progress while acknowledging the difficulties. 

Mr. Bush's opponent, Senator John Kerry, criticized the administration's optimistic public position on Iraq on Wednesday and questioned whether it would be possible to hold elections there in January.

"I think it is very difficult to see today how you're going to distribute ballots in places like Falluja, and Ramadi and Najaf and other parts of the country, without having established the security,'' Mr. Kerry said in a call-in phone call to Don Imus, the radio talk show host. "I know that the people who are supposed to run that election believe that they need a longer period of time and greater security before they can even begin to do it, and they just can't do it at this point in time. So I'm not sure the president is being honest with the American people about that situation either at this point.''

The situation in Iraq prompted harsh comments from Republicans and Democrats at a hearing into the shift of spending from reconstruction to security. Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called it "exasperating for anybody look at this from any vantage point," and Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said of the overall lack of spending: "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous." 

A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency declined to comment on any new intelligence estimate.

All the officials who described the assessment said they had read the document or had been briefed on its findings. The officials included both critics and supporters of the administration's policies in Iraq. But they insisted they not be identified by name, agency or branch of government because the document remained highly classified. 

The new estimate revisits issues raised by the intelligence council in less formal assessments in January 2003, the officials said. Those documents remain classified, but one of them warned that the building of democracy in Iraq would be a long, difficult and turbulent prospect that could include internal conflict, a government official said.

The new estimate by the National Intelligence Council was approved at a meeting in July by Mr. McLaughlin and the heads of the other intelligence agencies, the officials said.

Its pessimistic conclusions were reached even before the recent worsening of the security situation in Iraq, which has included a sharp increase in attacks on American troops and in deaths of Iraqi civilians as well as resistance fighters. Like the new National Intelligence Estimate, the assessments completed in January 2003 were prepared by the National Intelligence Council, which is led by Robert Hutchings and reports to the director of central intelligence. The council is charged with reflecting the consensus of the intelligence agencies. The January 2003 assessments were not formal National Intelligence Estimates, however, which means they were probably not formally approved by the intelligence chiefs.

The new estimate is the first on Iraq since the one completed in October 2002 on Iraq's illicit weapons program. A review by the Senate Intelligence Committee that was completed in July has found that document to have been deeply flawed.

The criticism over the document has left the C.I.A. and other agencies wary of being wrong again in judgments about Iraq. 

Declassified versions of the October 2002 document included dissents from some intelligence agencies on some crucial questions, including the issue of whether Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. The government officials who described the new estimate on the prospects for Iraq would not say if it had included significant dissents.

On Wednesday night, Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, confirmed the existence of the intelligence estimate, but he declined to discuss its contents in detail because they were classified. But he said the document "makes clear why it is so important to stand with the Iraqi people as they face these challenges.''

Mr. McCormack said that in describing "different possible scenarios for Iraq's political and economic future over the course of 18 months,'' the document had made clear that "Iraq's future will be determined by a number of different factors, include the nation's economic progress, the effectiveness of Iraq's political structure, and security and stability.''

He added: "In the past, including before the war to liberate Iraq, there were many different scenarios that were possible, including the outbreak of civil war. It hasn't happened. The Iraqi people continue to defy the predictions of pundits and others.'' 

Separate from the new estimate, Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued other warnings on Wednesday about the American campaign in Iraq, saying the administration's request to divert more than $3 billion to security from the $18.4 billion aid package of last November was a sign of trouble.

"Although we recognize these funds must not be spent unwisely," the committee chairman, Mr. Lugar said, "the slow pace of reconstruction spending means that we are failing to fully take advantage of one of our most potent tools to influence the direction of Iraq." 

Less than $1 billion has been spent so far.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, one of the harshest critics of the Iraq policies, was far more outspoken. "The president has frequently described Iraq as, quote, 'the central front of the war on terror,' " Mr. Biden went on. "Well by that definition, success in Iraq is a key standard by which to measure the war on terror. And by that measure, I think the war on terror is in trouble."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

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