|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
A civil war in Iraq could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, pitting the region's rival Islamic sects against each other, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said in an unusually frank assessment Tuesday.
"If chaos were to descend upon Iraq or the forces of democracy were to be defeated in that country ... this would have implications for the rest of the Middle East region and, indeed, the world," Negroponte said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats.
Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad before taking over as the nation's top intelligence official last April.
Iraqis have faced a chain of attacks and reprisals since bombs destroyed the gold dome of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last week. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died, including more than 65 who were killed Tuesday by suicide attackers, car bombers and insurgents firing mortars.
President Bush condemned the surge in violence and said Iraqis must make a choice between "a free society or a society dictated ... by evil people who will kill innocents." Later, in an interview with ABC News' "World News Tonight," he said he did not believe the escalation of civil unrest would lead to a general civil war.
Negroponte tried to focus on progress in Iraq, but he acknowledged a civil war would be a "serious setback" to the global war on terror.
"The consequences for the people of Iraq would be catastrophic," he said. "Clearly, it would seriously jeopardize the democratic political process on which they are presently embarked. And one can only begin to imagine what the political outcomes would be."
Saudi Arabia and Jordan could support Iraq's Sunnis, Negroponte said. And Iran, run by a Shiite Islamic theocracy, "has already got quite close ties with some of the extremist elements" inside Iraq, he added.
James Jeffrey, the State Department coordinator for Iraq, told reporters Tuesday that Iraqi security forces have managed to establish a normal and calm situation — "by Iraq standards." The level of violence, he said, was about the same as before the shrine bombing.
At the Senate hearing, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, painted a similarly stark picture of Afghanistan.
While the government has made progress in disarming private militias, Maples said, his agency estimates that violence from the Taliban and other anti-coalition groups in Afghanistan increased 20 percent last year.
"Insurgents now represent a greater threat to the expansion of Afghan government authority than at any point since late 2001, and will be active this spring," Maples said in his written statement.
Afghan insurgents increased their suicide attacks almost fourfold and more than doubled their use of improvised explosive devices, he said.
VARGAS: Let's move to Iraq. This has been a rough few days in Iraq since the bombing of the mosque in Samarra. There's been a lot of sectarian violence. We heard fresh reports of violence again today and reports from Baghdad that the violence in these past three days has been the worst since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There was a lot of criticism from both the Shiites and the Sunnis of the U.S. military for standing back and not doing enough to stop the violence.
What is the policy if, in fact, a civil war should break out or the sectarian violence continues? Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to get the Sunnis and the Shiites to stop killing each other?
BUSH: I don't buy your premise that there's going to be a civil war. There's no question that the bomber of the mosque is trying to create sectarian violence, and there's no question there was reaction to it. On the other hand, I had the duty, which I did, to call these leaders, Shi'a and Sunni leaders, as well as Kurdish leaders.
And the response was that we understand this is a moment that we've got to make a choice if we're going to have sectarian strife or whether or not we're going to unify. And I heard loud and clear that they understand that they're going to choose unification, and we're going to help them do so.
The presence of the U.S. troops is there to protect as many Iraqis as we possibly can from thugs and violence, but it's also to help the Iraqis protect themselves, and we're making progress in terms of standing up to these Iraqi troops so they can deal with, deal with these incidents of violence.
VARGAS: But what is the plan if the sectarian violence continues? I mean, do the U.S. troops take a larger role? Do they step in more actively to stop the violence?
BUSH: No. The troops are chasing down terrorists. They're protecting themselves and protecting the people, and -- but a major function is to train the Iraqis so they can do the work. I mean the ultimate success in Iraq -- and I believe we're going to be successful -- is for the Iraqi citizens to continue to demand unity.
And remember, one of the things that's lost during this troubled week -- and there's no question it's a troubled week -- was the fact that 11 million Iraqis, about two months ago, went to the polls and said, "We want to have a democratic government." So there's still a will of the people there that are interested in a unified government.
Secondly, we're working with the leaders to form this unity government, and we'll see how it goes. We're making pretty good progress though. And I think the bombers really caused the leaders to say, "Wait a minute. We now have got to project civil war or civil strife or sectarian violence."
And the other side of the equation has got to be to train the Iraqis to fight so that the people feel like there is a unified security force that's interested in protecting them from a few people who are trying to sow violence and discord.
BUSH: Well, Ayatollah Sistani, who is by far -- not by far -- is one of the most revered clerics, has made it very clear that this type of violence is not acceptable, and that he calls for a unified government. And matter of fact, many of the clerics have spoken out for a peaceful unified future for Iraq.
And there's no -- look, these are -- there are people that don't want to see democracy, and the reason why is because it defeats their vision of a totalitarian type government from which they can launch either attacks on America or future instability in the Middle East. You're witnessing this ideological struggle that's taking place, and Iraq happens to be the battle front for that struggle right now.
And I believe we're -- we will prevail, and the definition of prevailing is an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, an Iraq that is not a safe haven for people like Zarqawi or al Qaeda and its affiliates, an Iraq which becomes an ally in the war on terror.
VARGAS: So let me make sure I understand you. No matter what happens with the level of sectarian violence, the U.S. troops will stay there?
BUSH: The U.S. troops will stay there so long as -- until the Iraqis can defend themselves. I mean, my policy has not changed. To summarize it, as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.
And as you know, we've reduced troop levels this year, and that's because our commanders on the ground have said that the security situation in Iraq is improving because the Iraqis are more capable of taking the fight.