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CIA Reports a Bleak Outlook on Iraq

WASHINGTON -- A classified cable sent by the CIA's station chief in Baghdad has warned that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and may not rebound any time soon, according to government officials.

The cable, sent late last month as the officer ended a yearlong tour, presented a bleak assessment on matters of politics, economics and security, the officials said. They said its basic conclusions had been echoed in briefings presented by a senior CIA official who recently visited Iraq.

The officials described the two assessments as having been "mixed," saying that they did describe Iraq as having made important progress, particularly in terms of its political process, and credited Iraqis with being resilient.

But overall, the officials described the station chief's cable in particular as an unvarnished assessment of the difficulties ahead in Iraq. They said it warned that the security situation was likely to get worse, bringing more violence and sectarian clashes, unless there were marked improvements soon in the ability of the Iraqi government to assert authority and build the economy.

Together, the appraisals, which follow several other such warnings from officials in Washington and in the field, were much more pessimistic than the public picture being offered by the Bush administration before the elections scheduled for Iraq next month, the officials said. The cable was sent to CIA headquarters after U.S. forces completed what military commanders have described as a significant victory, with the retaking of Falluja, a principal base of the Iraqi insurgency, in mid-November.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, was said by the officials to have filed a written dissent, objecting to one finding as too harsh, on the ground that the United States had made more progress than was described in fighting the Iraqi insurgency. But the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey Jr., also reviewed the cable and did not dispute its conclusions, the officials said.

The station chief's cable has been widely disseminated outside the CIA, and was initially described by a government official who read the document and who praised it as unusually candid. Other government officials who have read or been briefed on the document later described its contents. The officials refused to be identified by name or affiliation because of the delicacy of the issue. The station chief cannot be publicly identified, because he continues to work undercover.

Asked about the cable, a White House spokesman, Sean McCormack, said he could not discuss intelligence matters. A CIA spokesman would say only that he could not comment on any classified document.

It was not clear how the White House was responding to the station chief's cable. But senior intelligence officials including John McLaughlin, the departing deputy director of central intelligence, have disputed those assertions. One government official said the new assessments might suggest that Porter Goss, the new director of central intelligence, was willing to listen to views different from those publicly expressed by the administration.

A separate, more formal National Intelligence Estimate prepared in July and sent to the White House in August by U.S. intelligence agencies also presented a dark forecast for Iraq's future through the end of 2005. Among three possible developments described in that document, the best case was tenuous stability and the worst case included a chain of events leading to civil war.

After news reports disclosed the existence of the National Intelligence Estimate, which also remains classified, Bush initially dismissed the conclusions as nothing more than a guess. Since then, however, violence in Iraq has increased, including the recent formation of a Shiite militia intended to carry out attacks on Sunni militants.

The end-of-tour cable from the station chief, spelling out an assessment of the situation on the ground, is a less formal product than a National Intelligence Estimate. But it was drafted by an officer who is highly regarded within the CIA and who as station chief in Baghdad has been the top U.S. intelligence official in Iraq since December 2003. The station chief oversees an intelligence operation that includes about 300 people, making Baghdad the largest CIA station since the wartime post in Saigon, Vietnam.

The senior CIA official who visited Iraq and then briefed counterparts from other government agencies was Michael Kostiw, a senior adviser to Goss. One government official who knew about Kostiw's briefings described them as "an honest portrayal of the situation on the ground."

Goss himself made his first foreign trip as the intelligence director last week, with stops in Britain and Afghanistan, but he did not visit Iraq, the government officials said.

At the White House on Monday, Bush himself offered no hint of pessimism as he met with Iraq's president, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar. Despite the security challenges, Bush said, the United States continues to favor the voting scheduled for Iraq on Jan. 30 to "send the clear message to the few people in Iraq that are trying to stop the march toward democracy that they cannot stop elections."

By Douglas Jehl
New York Times

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