Monday, February 05, 2007

US Spies File A Dissent On Al Qaeda

BY ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the NY Sun URL: WASHINGTON — In a division reminiscent of the intelligence debates before the Iraq war, America's war fighters and satellite imagery experts have issued a formal dissent on one of the National Intelligence Estimate's most important judgments. Disputing the view that Al Qaeda plays only a small role in the overall Sunni insurgency in Iraq, four of America's 16 intelligence agencies have obliged the Directorate of National Intelligence to provide a formal dissent to the 90-page classified Iraq assessment issued last week. Those agencies include the Treasury Department's Office of Intelligence and Analysis, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and the military intelligence bureaus of the Army and Marines. According to two sources familiar with the addendum, the dissenters argue that the Baathist wing of the umbrella Sunni terrorist group has ceded authority to Abu Ayoub al-Masri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who replaced Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The majority view, endorsed by the CIA, the National Security Agency, the State Department, and others, holds that a majority of the Sunni insurgency is still comprised of Baathists and Sunni nationalists.In some ways, the majority view bolsters the argument that Iraq is not a central front in the war on Al Qaeda, making it politically easier to favor a precipitous withdrawal of American forces from the country. In this respect, it undermines President Bush's own recent arguments for his war strategy. At issue in the bureaucratic fight is the methodology for counting Al Qaeda fighters. "They employed a methodology by looking at the fighter's background," an intelligence analyst familiar with the debate told The New York Sun. "The CIA looked at whether the fighters were recruited through religious means, or did they go to a training camp." The dissenting faction based its assessment in part on its reading of Iraq's Mujahideen Shura Council, an umbrella group that at first encompassed Al Qaeda. "The Mujahideen Shura Council is now for all intents and purposes an arm of Al Qaeda," another American intelligence analyst said yesterday. The council coordinates military activities for the Islamic State of Iraq, a political arm of the jihadists in Iraq unveiled in October that has tried to establish social services networks in the style of Hamas and Hezbollah. The view of the dissenters is close, according to the two analysts, to an August 2006 assessment from the Marine colonel in charge of intelligence in Anbar province, Peter Devlin. The assessment, first reported by the Washington Post on September 11, 2006, painted a grim picture of lawlessness in the Sunni insurgent hotbed. It also warned that America could already have lost the war in Anbar. Part of Colonel Devlin's assessment also said Al Qaeda in Iraq had filled the void left by the collapse of the local government. "Despite the success of the December elections, nearly all government institutions from the village to provincial levels have disintegrated or have been thoroughly corrupted and infiltrated by Al Qaeda in Iraq," the Post quoted from the assessment in a subsequent story published on November 28, 2006. The unclassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate, released Friday, does not mention the dissent on Al Qaeda. It does, however, downplay the group's role in comparison to Colonel Devlin's August assessment. It says, "Extremists — most notably the Sunni jihadist group al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI) and Shia oppositionist Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) — continue to act as very effective accelerators for what has become a self-sustaining inter-sectarian struggle between Shia and Sunnis." Another point of contention in the debate over the new intelligence estimate is the role Iran played in working with Sunni jihadist groups. The New York Sun reported on January 3 that captured documents found on a senior leader of Iran's Quds Force in December showed Iran's intention to bolster support for Ansar al-Sunna, a Kurdish Sunni group that had criticized Zarqawi but more recently has publicly embraced Al Qaeda's global leadership. The classified intelligence estimate, according to one intelligence analyst, neither endorses nor denies Iran's role in supporting Sunni groups in Iraq. "They took the same position as the Baker-Hamilton Commission," the analyst said, referring to the cochairmen of the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, James Baker and Lee Hamilton. That study group wrote, "There are also reports that Iran has supplied improvised explosive devices to groups — including Sunni Arab insurgents — that attack U.S. forces," acknowledging the allegation of Iranian support for Sunnis without endorsing its veracity. The unclassified National Intelligence Estimate says foreign actors play a role in influencing events in Iraq but are not a "major driver of violence."

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