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CIA warns of civil war in Iraq

In contrast to Bush’s optimism, officers say tensions mounting between Shiites, Kurds

Knight Ridder Newspapers

— CIA officers in Iraq are warning that the country might be on a path to civil war, current and former U.S. officials said Wednesday, starkly contradicting the upbeat assessment President Bush gave in his State of the Union address.

The CIA officers’ bleak assessment was delivered verbally to Washington this week, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The warning echoed growing fears that Iraq’s Shiite majority —which has until now grudgingly accepted the U.S. occupation — could turn to violence if its demands for direct elections are spurned.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurdish minority is pressing its demand for autonomy and shares of oil revenue.

“Both the Shiites and the Kurds think that now’s their time,” one intelligence officer said. “They think that if they don’t get what they want now, they’ll probably never get it. Both of them feel they’ve been betrayed by the United States before.”

These dire scenarios were discussed at meetings this week by Bush, his top national security aides and the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, a senior administration official said.

Another senior official said the concerns over a possible civil war were not confined to the CIA, but are “broadly held within the government,” including by regional experts at the State Department and National Security Council.

Top officials are scrambling to save the U.S. exit strategy after concluding that Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, is unlikely to drop his demand for elections for an interim legislature that would choose an interim government by June 30.

Bremer would then hand over power to the interim government.

The CIA hasn’t yet put its officers’ warnings about a potential Iraqi civil war in writing, but the senior official said he expected a formal report “momentarily.”

“In the discussion with Bremer in the last few days, several very bad possibilities have been outlined,” he said.

Bush, in his State of the Union address Tuesday, insisted that an insurgency against the U.S. occupation — conducted primarily by minority Sunni Muslims who enjoyed power under Saddam Hussein — “will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom.”

Bush did not directly address the crisis over the Shiites’ political demands.

Shiites, who dominate the regions from Baghdad south to the borders of Kuwait and Iran, make up 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people.

Several U.S. officials acknowledged that al-Sistani is unlikely to be “rolled,” as one put it, and as a result Bremer’s plan for restoring Iraqi sovereignty and ending the U.S. occupation by June 30 is in peril.

The Bremer plan, negotiated with the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council, calls for caucuses in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces to choose the interim national assembly, which would in turn select Iraq’s first post-Saddam government. The first direct elections wouldn’t be held until the end of 2005.

Al-Sistani wants the interim assembly chosen through direct elections.


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