The National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, released by the Bush administration on Friday, represents the findings of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and projects events in Iraq over the next 18 months.
The report does not come to a definite conclusion to address the question of a "civil war" in Iraq -- a term the Bush administration has avoided when describing the violence there -- but it said the classification does not capture the complex situation.
"Civil war," however, does reflect key elements of the struggle there, including the "hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements." The violence between Iraqis has overshadowed threats from al-Qaida as a major challenge to U.S. goals there, according to the summary.
Added to the sectarian violence, however, are attacks on U.S. and coalition forces and violence within Iraqi sects.
The assessment concluded that it would be difficult to improve the security situation in Iraq in the next 12 to 18 months if steps are not taken to reverse the increasing sectarian conflict and strengthen Iraqi security forces.
The Iraqi troops, the report found, would be hard pressed to take over security responsibilities and conduct operations against Shiite militias in the next 18 months, despite "real improvements."
It also found that violence has increased because of Iran's "lethal support" to some groups of Iraqi Shiite militants and that Syria has failed to stop fighters from crossing its borders to Iraq and provided safe haven to Iraqi Baathists.
When evaluating the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the authors expressed uncertainty over whether it would be able to establish functioning national institutions and transcend sectarian divisions.
Turning the situation around would require greater Sunni acceptance of the Iraqi government, large concessions by the Shiites and Kurds and increased efforts within local communities to restore relationships among tribal and religious groups.
The report comes amid increasing opposition in Congress to President Bush's new Iraq strategy that includes sending an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to help quell the violence.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops in the next 18 months "almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq" and intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government, the estimate said. A quick pullout also would lead to massive civilian casualties, hurt the development of the Iraqi security forces, possibly encourage Iraq's neighboring countries to intervene, and allow al-Qaida to use Iraq as a launching pad for attacks, the 90-page document said.
"The NIE makes clear that we cannot continue the same stubborn strategy that has brought us to this point in Iraq," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. "It also makes clear that we cannot just pull our forces out as if that decision can be made in a vacuum and without consequence."
Congress requested the NIE last August. Some legislators remain critical of the intelligence estimate, as most of the judgments in the October 2002 NIE report concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq proved false.