U.S. report paints grim picture of Iraq

Stability poorly rated in 7 of 18 provinces

April 09, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- An internal staff report by the U.S. Embassy and military command in Baghdad provides a sobering province-by-province snapshot of Iraq's political, economic and security situation, rating the overall stability of six of the 18 provinces "serious" and one "critical." The report is a counterpoint to some recent upbeat public statements by top American politicians and military officials.

In 10 pages of briefing slides, the report, titled "Provincial Stability Assessment," underscores the shift in the nature of the Iraq war three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Warnings of sectarian and ethnic frictions are raised in many regions, even in those provinces generally described as nonviolent by American officials.

There are also alerts about the growing power of Iranian-backed religious Shiite parties, several of which the United States helped put into power, and rival militias in the south. The authors also point to the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north as a major concern, with the two ethnic groups vying for power in Mosul, where violence is rampant, and Kirkuk, whose oil fields are critical for jump-starting economic growth in Iraq.

The patterns of discord mapped by the report confirm that ethnic and religious schisms have become entrenched across much of the country, even as monthly American fatalities have fallen. Those indications, taken with recent reports of mass migrations from mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, show that Iraq is undergoing a de facto partitioning along ethnic and sectarian lines, with clashes - sometimes political, sometimes violent - taking place in those mixed areas where different groups meet.

The report, the first of its kind, was written over a six-week period by a joint civilian and military group in Baghdad that wanted to provide a baseline assessment for conditions that new reconstruction teams would face as they were deployed to the provinces, said Daniel Speckhard, an American ambassador in Baghdad who oversees reconstruction efforts.

The writers included officials from the American Embassy's political branch, reconstruction agencies and the American military command in Baghdad, Speckhard said. The authors also received information from State Department officers in the provinces, he said.

The report, part of a periodic briefing on Iraq that the State Department provides to Congress, has been shown to officials on Capitol Hill, including those involved in budgeting for the reconstruction teams. It is not clear how many top American officials have seen it; the report has not circulated widely at the Defense Department or the National Security Council, spokesmen there said.

A copy of the report, which is not classified, was provided to The New York Times by a government official in Washington, who said that the confidential assessment provided a more realistic gauge of stability in Iraq than the recent portrayals by senior military officers. It is dated Jan. 31, 2006, three weeks before the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra, which set off reprisals that killed hundreds of Iraqis. Recent updates to the report are minor and leave it virtually unchanged in its conclusions, Speckhard said.

The general tenor of the Bush administration's comments on Iraq has been optimistic. On Thursday, President Bush said in a speech that his strategy was working despite rising violence in Iraq.

Vice President Dick Cheney, on the CBS News program Face the Nation, suggested last month that the administration's positive views were a better reflection of the conditions in Iraq than news media reports.

"I think it has less to do with the statements we've made, which I think were basically accurate and reflect reality," Cheney said, "than it does with the fact that there's a constant sort of perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad."

In their public pronouncements, the White House and the Pentagon have used daily attack statistics as a measure of stability in the provinces. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior military spokesman in Baghdad, told reporters recently that 12 of 18 provinces experience "less than two attacks a day."

Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on the NBC News program Meet the Press on March 5 that the war in Iraq was "going very, very well," although a few days later he acknowledged serious difficulties.

In recent interviews and speeches, administration officials have begun to lay out the deep-rooted problems hurting the American enterprise in Iraq. At the forefront has been Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, who has said the invasion opened a "Pandora's box" and, on Friday, warned that a civil war could engulf the entire Middle East.

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