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US Study Paints Somber Portrait of Iraqi Discord
Published on Sunday, April 9, 2006 by the New York Times
U.S. Study Paints Somber Portrait of Iraqi Discord
by Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong
 

WASHINGTON An internal staff report by the United States Embassy and the military command in Baghdad provides a sobering province-by-province snapshot of Iraq's political, economic and security situation, rating the overall stability of 6 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.

The report, 10 pages of briefing points 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 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 ethnicities 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, Mr. Speckhard said. The authors also received information from State Department officers in the provinces, he said.

The report was part of a periodic briefing on Iraq that the State Department provides to Congress, and 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 opposes the way the war is being conducted and said 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 its conclusions virtually unchanged, Mr. Speckhard said.

The general tenor of the Bush administration's comments on Iraq has been optimistic. On Thursday, President Bush argued 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," Mr. 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 comments, 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 experienced "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, some administration officials have begun to lay out the deep-rooted problems plaguing the American enterprise here. At the forefront has been Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador, who has said the invasion opened a "Pandora's box" and, on Friday, warned that a civil war here could engulf the entire Middle East.

On Saturday, Mr. Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior military commander in Iraq, issued a statement praising some of the political and security goals achieved in the last three years, but also cautioning that "despite much progress, much work remains."

Mr. Speckhard, the ambassador overseeing reconstruction, said the report was not as dire as its assessments might suggest. "Really, this shows there's one province that continues to be a major challenge," he said. "There are a number of others that have significant work to do in them. And there are other parts of the country that are doing much better."

But the report's capsule summaries of each province offer some surprisingly gloomy news. The report's formula for rating stability takes into account governing, security and economic issues. The oil-rich Basra Province, where British troops have patrolled in relative calm for most of the last three years, is now rated as "serious."

The report defines "serious" as having "a government that is not fully formed or cannot serve the needs of its residents; economic development that is stagnant with high unemployment, and a security situation marked by routine violence, assassinations and extremism."

British fatalities have been on the rise in Basra in recent months, with attacks attributed to Shiite insurgents. There is a "high level of militia activity including infiltration of local security forces," the report says. "Smuggling and criminal activity continues unabated. Intimidation attacks and assassination are common."

The report states that economic development in the region, long one of the poorest in Iraq, is "hindered by weak government."

The city of Basra has widely been reported as devolving into a mini-theocracy, with government and security officials beholden to Shiite religious leaders, enforcing bans on alcohol and mandating head scarves for women. Police cars and checkpoints are often decorated with posters or stickers of Moktada al-Sadr, the rebellious cleric, or Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric whose party is very close to Iran. Both men have formidable militias.

Mr. Hakim's party controls the provincial councils of eight of the nine southern provinces, as well as the council in Baghdad.

In a color-coded map included in the report, the province of Anbar, the wide swath of western desert that is the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, is depicted in red, for "critical." The six provinces categorized as "serious" Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and three others to the north are orange. Eight provinces deemed "moderate" are in yellow, and the three Kurdish provinces are depicted in green, for "stable."

The "critical" security designation, the report says, means a province has "a government that is not functioning" or that is only "represented by a single strong leader"; "an economy that does have the infrastructure or government leadership to develop and is a significant contributor to instability"; and "a security situation marked by high levels of AIF [anti-Iraq forces] activity, assassinations and extremism."

The most surprising assessments are perhaps those of the nine southern provinces, none of which are rated "stable." The Bush administration often highlights the relative lack of violence in those regions.

For example, the report rates as "moderate" the two provinces at the heart of Shiite religious power, Najaf and Karbala, and points to the growing Iranian political presence there. In Najaf, "Iranian influence on provincial government of concern," the report says. Both the governor and former governor of Najaf are officials in Mr. Hakim's religious party, founded in Iran in the early 1980's. The report also notes that "there is growing tension between Mahdi Militia and Badr Corps that could escalate" referring to the private armies of Mr. Sadr and Mr. Hakim, which have clashed before.

The report does highlight two bright spots for Najaf. The provincial government is able to maintain stability for the province and provide for the people's needs, it says, and religious tourism offers potential for economic growth.

But insurgents still manage to occasionally penetrate the tight ring of security. A car bomb exploded Thursday near the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, killing at least 10 people and wounding dozens.

Immediately to the north, Babil Province, an important strategic area abutting Baghdad, also has "strong Iranian influence apparent within council," the report says. There is "ethnic conflict in north Babil," and "crime is a major factor within the province." In addition, "unemployment remains high."

Throughout the war, American commanders have repeatedly tried to pacify northern Babil, a farming area with a virulent Sunni Arab insurgency, but they have had little success. In southern Babil, the new threat is Shiite militiamen who are pushing up from Shiite strongholds like Najaf and Karbala and beginning to develop rivalries among themselves.

Gen. Qais Hamza al-Maamony, the commander of Babil's 8,000-member police force, said his officers were not ready yet to intervene between warring militias, should it come to that, as many fear. "They would be too frightened to get into the middle," he said in an interview.

If the American troops left Babil, he said, "the next day would be civil war."

Eric Schmitt reported from Washington for this article, and Edward Wong from Baghdad. Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Hilla, Iraq, and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi from Baghdad.

© Copyright 2006 New York Times

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