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Good, Bad News in Iraq Intelligence Estimate


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Steve Inskeep is on assignment. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Now, the latest word from American spy agencies in Iraq. They have produced a new National Intelligence Estimate. It judges that progress is being made in Iraq's security situation. On the political side, though, it's a different, far bleaker story.

NPR's intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here is the good news. This new NIE, or National Intelligence Estimate, judges that al-Qaida in Iraq's capabilities have been reduced. It notes that attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks. And it concludes that so long as U.S. troops continue to fight insurgents and train Iraqi security forces, then, quote, "Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months."

There's a key development driving these gains, says Paul Pillar who spent five years as the CIA's top Iraq analyst.

Mr. PAUL PILLAR (Former Analyst, Central Intelligence Agency): If one had to identify the single, biggest piece of good news that is cataloged in this document, it has been the reduction of support for AQI, al-Qaida in Iraq, among many of the Sunni elements, as we've seen particularly in Anbar province.

KELLY: The NIE does say violence across Iraq remains high. And it judges Iraqi security forces still aren't strong enough to operate without U.S. help. Still, Jeffrey White, a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, argues that this NIE does document some real progress.

Mr. JEFFREY WHITE (Former Chief, Middle East Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency): I think the surge has actually had some, you know, significant positive effects on the security situation. It's given us the ability to actually take the war to the enemies, especially al-Qaida in Iraq, and pursue them in ways that we had not been able to do so before.

KELLY: But if the original point of the U.S. troops surge was to give Iraq's leaders breathing space to forge political progress, this new estimate makes clear that hasn't happened.

The NIE is relentlessly bleak on the political side. It casts serious doubts that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can govern effectively. Bottom line: it judges that Iraq's government will become more precarious in the coming months.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe tried to put a positive spin on that yesterday.

Mr. GORDON JOHNDROE (White House Spokesman): It is frustrating, but it's not surprising that the political reconciliation is lagging behind the security improvements. But no question about it, we want the Iraqi government to come together and make some decisions about how they're going to work together for more prosperous and secure Iraq.

KELLY: But the NIE holds out little hope that Iraq's leaders will come together. It predicts that divisions among Shia factions will probably intensify. It describes Sunnis as politically fragmented, and Kurdish leaders as refusing to compromise on key issues. Predictably for an intelligence document, the estimate does not weigh in on the question consuming Washington this week. That is, whether Prime Minister Maliki should keep his job.

Intelligence analysts do write that Maliki is benefiting from the recognition that a search for his replacement could paralyze the government there. Jeff White sees the situation this way.

Mr. WHITE: Maliki probably can't deliver, but there isn't anybody else really in the wings that can. You know, there are no George Washingtons, no Thomas Jeffersons. There's nobody there that can really reach out and pull the country together.

KELLY: And at the end of the day, no answers in this report to some of the big questions on Iraq's future. The NIE focuses narrowly on how events may unfold over the next six to 12 months. Paul Pillar says it does provide some glimmers of hope over that period.

Mr. PILLAR: But what it does not do is provide any real hope for a light at the end of the tunnel. Once you go beyond the six-to-twelve-month timeframe, there is still the question of whether a continued counterinsurgency strategy is eventually going to result in what the president called in his speech this week a free Iraq.

KELLY: For an answer to that question, President Bush says he is looking ahead to the next big report on Iraq's stability. That's the one being drafted now by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. Their report card is due out next month.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You can read that NIE report at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.

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