A nearly completed high-level U.S. intelligence analysis warns that unresolved ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq could unleash a new wave of violence, potentially reversing the major security and political gains achieved over the last year.
U.S. officials familiar with the new National Intelligence Estimate said they were unsure when the top-secret report would be completed and whether it would be published before the Nov. 4 election.
More than a half-dozen officials spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because NIEs, the most authoritative analyses produced by the U.S. intelligence community, are restricted to the president, his senior aides and members of Congress, except in rare instances when just the key findings are made public.
The new NIE, which reflects the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, has significant implications for Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, whose differences over the Iraq war are a major issue in the presidential campaign.
The findings seem to cast doubts on McCain's frequent assertions that the U.S. is “on a path to victory” in Iraq by underscoring the deep uncertainties of the situation despite the 30,000-strong U.S. troop surge for which he was a leading advocate.
But McCain could also use the findings as a reason for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until conditions stabilize.
For Obama, the report raises questions about whether he could fulfill his pledge to withdraw most of the remaining 152,000 U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office so that more U.S. forces could be sent to Afghanistan.
Word of the draft NIE comes at a time when Iraq is enjoying its lowest levels of violent incidents since early 2004 and a 77 percent drop in civilian deaths in June through August 2008 over the same period in 2007, according to the Defense Department.
U.S. officials say last year's surge was just one reason for the improvements. Other factors include the truce declared by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the enlistment of former Sunni insurgents in Awakening groups created by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists.