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Few parts of Iraq are stable, report finds
The New York Times
WASHINGTON — An internal staff report by the U.S. Embassy and military command in Baghdad provides a snapshot of Iraq's political, economic and security situation in each of the 18 provinces, rating overall stability of six provinces "serious," one as "critical" and only three as "stable."
The report is a counterpoint to some recent upbeat public statements by top U.S. 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 provinces generally described as nonviolent by U.S. officials.
There also 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. And the authors describe the Arab-Kurdish fault line in the north as a major concern, with the two ethnicities vying for power in violence-strewn Mosul and in Kirkuk, which have oil fields critical to jump-starting economic growth in Iraq.
A copy of the unclassified report — dated Jan. 31, three weeks before the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra triggered reprisals that have killed more than 1,000 Iraqis — was provided to The New York Times by a government official who opposes the way the war is being conducted and said the confidential assessment provided a more realistic gauge of stability in Iraq than recent portrayals by senior military officers.
Recent updates to the report leave it virtually unchanged in its conclusions, said Daniel Speckhard, a U.S. envoy in Baghdad who oversees reconstruction efforts.
Writers included embassy officials, reconstruction agencies and the U.S. military command in Baghdad, Speckhard said. State Department officers in the provinces contributed, he said.
The report has been shown to Capitol Hill officials, including those involved in budgeting for reconstruction teams. It has not circulated widely at the Defense Department or the National Security Council, spokesmen there said.
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. Taken with recent reports of mass migrations from mixed Sunni-Shiite areas, Iraq appears to be undergoing a de facto partitioning along ethnic and sectarian lines, with clashes — sometimes political, sometimes violent — in mixed areas.
The general tenor of the Bush administration's comments on Iraq has been optimistic. President Bush argued in a speech Thursday that his Iraq strategy was working despite increasing violence. He also has spoken often about the progress of democracy in the country and the improved readiness of Iraqi troops.
"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 public pronouncements, the White House and the Pentagon have used daily attack statistics as a measure of stability. Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior military spokesman in Baghdad, said recently that 12 of 18 provinces experience "less than two attacks a day."
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC News' "Meet the Press" on March 5 that the war was "going very, very well." He acknowledged serious difficulties days later.
Some administration officials recently have begun to lay out deep-rooted problems. At the forefront has been Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, who has said the invasion opened a "Pandora's box" and, on Friday, warned that a civil war could engulf the entire Middle East.
Speckhard said the report was not as dire as its assessments might suggest. Peaceful countries in the developing world would have similar grades, he said.
"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."
In a color-coded map included in the report, Anbar province, the wide swath of western desert that is the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, is depicted in red, for "critical." Such an assessment means "a government that is not functioning" or "represented by a single strong leader; an economy that does not 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 six provinces categorized as "serious" — Basra, Baghdad, Diyala and three others to the north — are orange. That denotes "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."
Eight provinces deemed "moderate" are in yellow, and the three Kurdish provinces are depicted in green, for "stable."
Taken together, the seven provinces that received "critical" or "serious" ratings represent roughly 60 percent of Iraq's population of 25 million.
The most surprising assessments are perhaps those of the nine southern provinces. None is rated "stable," and oil-rich Basra province, where British troops have patrolled in relative calm for most of the past three years, is now rated "serious."
The Bush administration often highlights the relative lack of violence in those regions.
Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebellious cleric, and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a cleric whose party is close to Iran, wield enormous influence in the south, and their militias have clashed occasionally. Al-Hakim's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, founded in Iran in the early 1980s, controls the majority of provincial council seats in eight of the nine southern provinces, as well as Baghdad.
The report rates as "moderate" the two provinces at the heart of Shiite religious power, Najaf and Karbala. In Najaf, the report says, Iranian influence on the provincial government is of concern. The report also notes "there is growing tension between Mahdi Militia and Badr Corps that could escalate" — referring to the private armies of al-Sadr and al-Hakim.
The report does highlight two bright spots for Najaf. The provincial government is able to maintain stability and provide for residents' needs, it says, and religious tourism offers potential for economic growth.
But insurgents still penetrate the tight ring of security occasionally. A car bomb exploded Thursday near the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, killing at least 10 people and injuring dozens.
Immediately to the north, Babil province, an important strategic area abutting Baghdad, also has "strong Iranian influence apparent within [the] 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, U.S. commanders repeatedly have tried with little success to pacify northern Babil, a farming area with a virulent Sunni Arab insurgency. In southern Babil, the new threat is Shiite militiamen who are developing rivalries among themselves.
Gen. Qais Hamza al-Maamony, commander of Babil's 8,000-member police force, said his officers were not ready 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.
If U.S. troops left Babil, he said, "the next day would be civil war."
New York Times reporters Jeffrey Gettleman and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Seattle Times staff contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company