BAGHDAD (Reuters) -U.S. intelligence experts painted a gloomy picture of Iraq, saying in a report seen on Friday sectarian bloodshed had surpassed the threat from al Qaeda and warning of the consequences of a rapid U.S. withdrawal.
The report emerged at the end of a week in which several hundred people were killed in violence, including 270 killed near the town of Najaf when U.S. and Iraqi forces battled what Iraqi officials say were members of a shadowy sect.
The National Intelligence Estimate report, parts of which were obtained by Reuters, described a serious situation, with Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence having surpassed al Qaeda activities.
It said elements of the conflict could be called “civil war.”
“The term ‘civil war’ does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq,” said the report. “Nonetheless, the term ‘civil war’ accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict.”
U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration has steadfastly avoided using the term “civil war,” which could heighten already growing calls for an early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Portions of the 90-page report seen by Reuters predicted the situation in Iraq would worsen unless efforts were made to reverse conditions.
Bush said in January he would send 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq in an effort to get a grip on the sectarian killings and insurgent attacks, especially in Baghdad.
The increase in troops — on top of some 130,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq — is widely seen as a final attempt to avert all-out sectarian civil war between Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority and Sunnis once dominant under Saddam Hussein.
The report said a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces would lead to massive civilian casualties and the possible intervention by Iraq’s neighbors, including a military incursion by Turkey.
It said the Iraqi government would be unlikely to survive as a non-sectarian institution and that al Qaeda would use parts of Iraq to plan attacks inside and outside the country.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 and toppled Saddam.
National Intelligence Estimates, using input from several agencies, are written by the National Intelligence Council.
In the latest violence, U.S. troops said they killed 18 insurgents in clashes in the volatile Iraqi city of Ramadi, and launched an air strike against an al Qaeda-linked insurgent cell in Baghdad responsible for suicide car bombings.
The U.S. military said a U.S. helicopter crashed during operations northwest of Baghdad on Friday, killing two soldiers. Three helicopters have crashed in the past two weeks in Iraq, possibly all shot down.
Hospital officials also said the death toll from suicide bomb attacks in the Shi’ite town of Hilla on Thursday had risen to 75 from 61. About 160 people were wounded when two bombers blew themselves up at a crowded market.
Portions of the U.S. intelligence report seen by Reuters said U.S. and coalition capabilities, “including force levels, resources and operations remain an essential element in Iraq.”
“Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this estimate, the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security of the situation will continue to deteriorate,” the report said.
It said Iranian activities inside Iraq had led to increased violence, although were not a major cause of it.