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Warnings insurgency would grow issued in '03 — and ignored
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies repeatedly warned the White House beginning more than two years ago that the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war, according to former senior intelligence officials who helped craft the reports.
Among the warnings was a major study, called a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), completed in October 2003, that concluded that the insurgency was fueled by local conditions — not foreign terrorists — and drew strength from deep grievances, including the presence of U.S. troops.
The reports received a cool reception from the White House and the office of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to the former officials, who discussed them publicly for the first time.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and others continued to describe the insurgency as a containable threat, posed mainly by former supporters of Saddam Hussein, criminals and non-Iraqi terrorists — even as the U.S. intelligence community was warning otherwise.
Robert Hutchings, chairman of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) from 2003 to 2005, said the October 2003 study was part of a "steady stream" of dozens of intelligence reports warning Bush and his top lieutenants that the insurgency was intensifying and expanding.
"Frankly, senior officials simply weren't ready to pay attention to analysis that didn't conform to their own optimistic scenarios," Hutchings said in a telephone interview.
Hutchings said one theme that ran through intelligence analyses as early as 2003 was that there were "signs of incipient civil war."
"The invasion and occupation opened issues for which the Iraqi people had no answer," he said, including the role of religion and relations among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
The NIC is the intelligence community's foremost group of senior analysts, and Hutchings presided over the drafting of the October 2003 report and other analyses of the insurgency.
Wayne White, a veteran State Department intelligence analyst, wrote recently that when it became clear that the NIE would forecast grim prospects for tamping down the insurgency, a senior official "exclaimed rhetorically, 'How can I take this upstairs?' [to then-CIA Director George Tenet]."
Revelation of the intelligence warnings come as religious and ethnic violence has escalated in Iraq after last Wednesday's destruction of a revered Shiite Muslim mosque in the city of Samarra.
In Congress on Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified that the insurgency "remains strong and resilient."
While Iraqi terrorists and foreign fighters conduct some of the most spectacular attacks, Maples said, disaffected Iraqi Sunnis make up the insurgency's core.
"So long as Sunni Arabs are denied access to resources and lack a meaningful presence in government, they will continue to resort to violence," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
That view contrasts with what the administration said as the insurgency gained traction in the months after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Bush and his aides portrayed it as the work primarily of foreign terrorists crossing Iraq's borders, disenfranchised former officials of Saddam's deposed regime and criminals.
In August 2003, with concerns about the insurgency growing, Bush said: "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on. ... We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation."
On Nov. 1, 2003, a day after the NIE was distributed, Bush said in his weekly radio address: "Some of the killers behind these attacks are loyalists of the Saddam regime who seek to regain power and who resent Iraq's new freedoms. Others are foreigners who have traveled to Iraq to spread fear and chaos. ... The terrorists and the Baathists hope to weaken our will. Our will cannot be shaken."
As recently as May 2005, Cheney told a television interviewer: "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
White, who worked at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said of the administration: "They've gone through various excuse phases."
Now, he said, "The levels of resistance are pretty much as high as they were a year ago."
Hutchings, now diplomat in residence at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said intelligence specialists repeatedly ran up against policymakers' rosy predictions.
"The mind-set downtown was that people were willing to accept that things were pretty bad, but not that they were going to get worse, so our analyses tended to get dismissed as 'nay-saying and hand-wringing,' to quote the president's press spokesman," he said.
The result, he said, was that top political and military officials focused on ways of dealing with foreign jihadists and disaffected Saddam loyalists, rather than with other pressing problems, such as growing Iraqi anger at the U.S.-led occupation and the deteriorating economic and security situation.
A former senior U.S. official who participated in the process said analysts at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department's intelligence bureau agreed the insurgency posed a growing threat to stability and to U.S. hopes for forming a new government.
"This was stuff the White House and the Pentagon did not want to hear," said the former official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They were constantly grumbling that the people who were writing these kind of downbeat assessments 'needed to get on the team,' 'were not team players' and were 'sitting up there [at CIA headquarters] in Langley sucking their thumbs.' "
The October 2003 report on "violence and instability in Iraq" was requested not by the White House but by the U.S. military's Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Iraq, current and former officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When analysts from various intelligence agencies first met in mid-2003 to prepare the report, White said, almost all argued that the insurgency could be contained.
He was the sole exception, he said.
The office of Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte declined Tuesday to comment for this article, but, appearing at the Senate hearing with Maples on Tuesday, he warned that a civil war in Iraq could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, pitting the region's rival Islamic sects against each other.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan could support Iraq's Sunnis, Negroponte said. And Iran, run by a Shiite Islamic theocracy, "has already got quite close ties with some of the extremist elements" inside Iraq, he added.
Bush, in an interview with ABC News' "World News Tonight," said he did not believe the escalation of civil unrest would lead to a general civil war.
Additional information from
The Associated Press
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