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NIE: Intelligence community has tepid faith in Iraqi leaders

  • Story Highlights
  • Iraqi forces improving but still need help in combat, logistics, NIE says
  • Iran, Syria -- possibly Turkey -- could exacerbate security woes, NIE says
  • Security improving, but reconciliation, violence remain problems, NIE says
  • Leading Democrat says NIE shows president's strategy for Iraq "flawed"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Civilian casualties remain high, sectarian groups can't get along, al Qaeda in Iraq is still pulling off high-profile attacks and "to date, Iraqi leaders remain unable to govern effectively," said the declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate released Thursday.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's leadership comes under fire in a U.S. intelligence assessment, officials say.

The intelligence community briefed the media on the assessment hours after senior Bush administration officials told CNN the classified version of the report expressed doubts that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is able to lead the war-torn country.

The report concluded that al-Maliki may not have the ability or capacity to "push forward" legislative reforms, according to one of the officials who read the classified version.

The declassified version, however, points to the security situation, political system and economy as hindrances to Iraqi progress and states that improvements in these areas are "unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments."

The report stated the Iraqi government was making strides in the economic realm but that "structural problems continue to prevent sustained progress in economic growth and living conditions."

The estimate came a day after Bush defended al-Maliki in a speech in Kansas City, Missouri.

"Prime Minister al-Maliki's a good guy -- good man with a difficult job and I support him," Bush said. "And it's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position."

Bush also made comparisons between "how we left" the Vietnam War and what might happen if the United States were to pull out of Iraq.

The classified NIE expresses concern that insurgents are planning a Tet-like offensive in coming weeks, according to an administration official. The Tet offensive was a series of coordinated attacks in 1968 by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

The report also addresses security in Iraq, particularly in Anbar province where some Sunni leaders have turned against al Qaeda in Iraq, said a second official who has been briefed on the classified report but hasn't read it.

Before the declassified version was released, administration sources said they were unsure if the details they provided to CNN would appear in the unclassified version of the NIE.

According to the declassified findings, the U.S. intelligence community predicts Iraqi security "will continue to improve modestly" over the next year, "but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation."

The fate of Iraqi security and reconciliation will depend on Sunnis and Shiites cooperating, not only in government but also in efforts to weaken the influence of al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist organizations, the key findings state.

Al-Maliki's Dawa Party has been trying to avert a governmental collapse by entering into an alliance with another Shiite party and the two top Kurdish parties, but it has not been able to attract a top Sunni party to join its effort.

Though Sunnis appear to be uniting against the insurgency, that has not "translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia," according to the NIE findings.

The findings warn against any precipitous pullout by U.S. troops, saying that "perceptions that the coalition is withdrawing probably will encourage factions anticipating a power vacuum to seek local security solutions that could intensify sectarian violence and intra-sectarian competition."

A drawdown of U.S. troops also could have adverse effects on the Iraqi security forces, according to the findings. Though the Iraqi forces have demonstrated "increasing professional competence," the report says they still rely heavily on coalition support and guidance, especially in combat and logistical matters.

Also threatening Iraqi security are its neighbors, Syria and Iran, the findings state. Tehran, fearing U.S. influence and Sunni dominance in Iraq, will continue its "lethal support" for Shiite militias.

And though the findings state that Syria is making efforts to stop Sunni extremists from crossing its border into Iraq, they also allege that Damascus continues to help extremist groups not affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq.

Another neighbor, Turkey, may pose additional security concerns if it determines that cross-border operations against the Kurds are necessary to protect interests in northern Iraq, according to the findings.

Bush was briefed Monday on a classified version of the NIE, which was sent to Congress this week. Next month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are scheduled to deliver a report on their views about military and political progress to Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid released a statement Thursday saying the NIE was evidence that the U.S. policy on Iraq should be reconsidered in September.

"Every day that we continue to stick to the president's flawed strategy is a day that America is not as secure as it could be," said Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.

"America's attention is distracted from Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, which has regenerated its capacity to its pre-9/11 levels. That is why it is so essential that this September, Republicans join with Democrats to change course in Iraq and work to restore our nation's security."

But House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, saw the report in a different light. He said it confirms "what Republicans have been saying about the successes of our troops in combating al Qaeda in Iraq and underscores the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal."

Al-Maliki's government has been under fire in the United States -- at least two senators have lambasted his administration this week.

On Monday, Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on the Iraqi parliament to oust al-Maliki's "nonfunctioning" government.

Al-Maliki and his Cabinet are "too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders" to reach a political settlement that would end the country's sectarian and insurgent violence, Levin said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also serves on the Armed Service Committee, echoed that call Wednesday.

Clinton, D-New York, said she already had reservations about al-Maliki's leadership in January, but since then, "Iraqi leaders have not met their own political benchmarks to share power, modify the de-Baathification laws, pass an oil law, schedule provincial elections and amend their constitution."

Claiming the lack of political progress in Iraq is "unacceptable," Clinton further said, "I share Sen. Levin's hope that the Iraqi parliament will replace Prime Minister al-Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure."

But Clinton and Levin's sentiments are not the congressional consensus. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, warned Thursday against attacking Iraq's "struggling democracy that we have helped midwife into existence."

"Some of these opponents of the war are now turning their harshest criticism on our allies in Iraq instead of our enemies," Lieberman said in a statement. "Political progress in Iraq depends on this kind of steady statecraft and patient diplomacy on the ground in Baghdad, rather than scapegoating and congressionally ordered coups."

In a trip to Syria this week the Iraqi prime minister scolded his American friends for daring to challenge the will of the Iraqi people who installed him and dismissed the criticism as Washington politics.

It's a role reversal that speaks volumes about the inherent complexities and difficulties of the Bush administration's policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.

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While in Damascus Wednesday, a U.S. foe which the US has blasted for its failure to respect democracy in Lebanon and its own country, Maliki called Levin's remarks "irresponsible" and said they "overstep the bounds of diplomatic and political courtesy."

Al-Maliki also said he would "find friends elsewhere" if he was abandoned by the United States. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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