Friday, January 12, 2007

Sectarian divisions and related violence in Iraq are growing, as al Qaeda remains the most serious national-security threat facing the United States, senior U.S. intelligence officials told Congress yesterday.

Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte said during the annual threat briefing for the Senate intelligence committee that “sectarian divisions are widening,” despite efforts by the new government.

Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples told the hearing that “violence in Iraq, as measured over the past year, continued to increase in scope, complexity and lethality.’

The intelligence officials painted a dire picture of the insurgency in Iraq and spoke a day after President Bush announced a new plan to stabilize Baghdad with an additional 21,500 troops.

Mr. Negroponte said Iraq is “at a precarious juncture.”

“Communal violence accelerated by the attack on the Samarra mosque in February 2006 — and scant common ground between Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds have polarized politics,” Mr. Negroponte said.

Additionally, political factions are unable to compromise on key issues and public services are inadequate, including a decline in the daily hours of electrical power, while oil output remains below prewar levels, he said.

“With political reconciliation stalled, Iraqis increasingly resort to violence,” Mr. Negroponte said.

The government’s most senior intelligence official said stabilizing Iraq in the next year will depend on the Iraqi government’s ability to create national instead of sectarian-ruled institutions.

Additionally, Mr. Negroponte warned that the terrorist threat from the Iranian-backed terror group Hezbollah is increasing. He noted that recent fighting by Hezbollah against Israel in Lebanon, “could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against U.S. interests.”

On China, Mr. Negroponte said Beijing is continuing its rapid military buildup, including placing large numbers of missiles opposite Taiwan, but despite this, “prospects of a cross-strait conflict with Taiwan have diminished.”

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the hearing that al Qaeda is planning attacks in the United States through “infiltrating operatives” from overseas and that the group is seeking to use some form of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material in weapons.

“Al Qaeda’s choice of targets and attack methods will most likely continue to focus on economic targets such as aviation, the energy sector and mass transit; soft targets such as large public gatherings; and symbolic targets such as monuments and government buildings,” Mr. Mueller said.

Gen. Maples,, said some developments in Iraq “give hope for progress,” although “the Sunni Arab-based insurgency continues to gain strength and capacity.”

The three-star general also warned that Iraq is in danger of a breakdown of central authority that would pose a threat to the Iraq, the region and U.S. strategic interests.

“DIA judges that continued coalition presence is the primary counter to a breakdown of central authority,” Gen. Maples said.

“The conflict remains a sectarian struggle for power and the right to define Iraq’s future identity,” Gen. Maples said, noting that attacks averaged 160 per day in December, down slightly from 180 a day in October.

Ten percent of the insurgents in Iraq are foreign terrorists, many of whom are dispatched to the country to conduct suicide car bombings, Gen. Maples said.

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