The long-awaited National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq - "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead" - is finally on the streets after months of delay.
If you've been following events in Iraq, then the publicly released, declassified version of the NIE is a bit of a thumb-sucker. But it's supposedly the unvarnished consensus of the 16-agency intelligence community, with added input from outside experts - and it meshes well with the president's new plan.
(Indeed, the report's delay stems from the support the intel agencies were giving the White House as it developed its new strategy.)
There's a classified, more detailed (90 pages long) version of the NIE, too. Members of Congress should give that a good, hard read this week - before they take up any of the numerous Iraq resolutions floating around the Capitol.
Here's the Reader's Digest version of the report:
The situation is serious. Iraq is still terribly fractured along both ethnic (Arab vs. Kurd) and religious (Shia vs. Sunni) lines. (Can't argue that.)
The majority of the violence in Iraq is sectarian, with the (Shia) militias backed by Iran, (Sunni) al Qaeda and other extremists acting as "very effective accelerators" to the religious "struggle." (Fair enough.)
Iraq isn't in a civil war - but the conflict bears the characteristics of some elements of a civil war. (An interesting distinction - but without any obvious difference.)
The presence of U.S. and Coalition forces, operations and resources are an essential stabilizing force in Iraq. (Well, yeah.)
The NIE warns that if U.S. forces are withdrawn "rapidly," the situation would go to hell in a handbasket in no time, leading to all sorts of problems - arguably bigger ones. Some of the gruesome possibilities:
Wider War I: Neighboring countries - invited by Iraqi factions or moving in on their own - might openly intervene in Iraq to protect (or advance) their interests.
Iran's a top candidate - it already has ties to Shiite militias, and naked ambitions to spread its revolution; it could claim it was protecting its Shiite "co-religionists" against Sunni attacks.
Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, might intervene in the name of protecting the (minority) Iraqi Sunnis against the (majority) Shiites - especially those Iranian-backed militias.
This scenario could easily lead to a major regional war between Sunni and Shia - or Arabs and Persians. Whoever won, oil prices would likely skyrocket.
New Al Qaeda Bases: The NIE also notes that al Qaeda might use parts of Iraq - such as restless al Anbar province - to plan and launch attacks inside and outside Iraq. Another horrifying possibility - especially considering Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri's encouragement of attacks beyond Iraq.
In fact, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi already did just that - orchestrating an attack on a wedding in Jordan while in Iraq. Documents captured from a safe house used by his group (al Qaeda in Iraq) revealed plans for terrorist assaults in the United States.
Wider War II: "Spiraling violence" and more "political disarray" might lead to Kurdish moves to control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk or strengthen its autonomy - which could bring neighboring Turkey pouring over the border into Iraq.
The decades-long conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatist groups in Turkey has often been brutal and bloody - on both sides. If Iraqi Kurds moved from "provincial sovereignty" within Iraq to real independence, Turkey would be very, very anxious. Ankara might also jump at any chance to deal a blow to the KGK (formerly the PKK), a Kurdish terror group that haunts Iraq.
Internally, the NIE posits that further "convulsing" of Iraq's security environment could bring: a) a Shia/Sunni/Kurd partition, accompanied by years of violence; b) the emergence of a Shia strongman; or c) a violent "checkered pattern of local control."
The NIE isn't supposed to be a policy document, but the intelligence community's best judgment as to the facts. And the report seems to conclude that the deteriorating situation in Iraq is salvageable - if Iraq develops stronger leadership and sees a turnaround in its security situation and economic development.
That seems to be where the president is heading - if Congress lets him implement his plan. Given the nightmares that might grow from U.S. failure in Iraq, talk of cutting off funding is downright misguided.
Iraq is tough - no doubt. But members of Congress need to take the new NIE into account in their deliberations. They also need to ensure that any action they take doesn't discourage our brave troops - or enable our enemies.
Peter Brookes is a columnist forThe New York Post, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."
First appeared in the New York Post