A deeply pessimistic US intelligence assessment of the situation in Iraq, warning of possible civil war, has cast further doubts over the Bush administration's attempt to rebuild the country, and gave the Democratic challenger John Kerry a new opportunity to move the Iraq crisis to the centre of the Presidential election battle.
In a speech to the National Guard Association in Las Vegas yesterday, the Massachusetts senator avoided the controversy over charges that the President shirked his duties during his service in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973.
Instead, Mr Kerry accused George Bush of "playing politics with national security" over Iraq, of glossing over the problems there and "living in a fantasy world of spin". He lambasted the White House for the lack of prewar planning which was now forcing National Guardsmen and reservists to serve excessively long tours of duty there, in what amounted to a backdoor draft.
The acute difficulties in Iraq are highlighted in the National Intelligence Estimate, drawn up in July and representing the distilled wisdom of the entire US intelligence community.
It sketches out three scenarios for Iraq. The grimmest is a descent into civil war; the second is understood to be a continuation of the current disorder. Even the most favourable of the three holds out no better prospect than a precarious stability, under constant threat.
The conclusions of the NIE, first reported by The New York Times yesterday, contrast sharply with the doggedly upbeat tone of Mr Bush on the campaign trail. At every turn, the President insists Iraq is firmly on the road to peace and democracy, deriding Mr Kerry for vacillation and "flip-flopping" on the issue.
Such intelligence studies have a chequered history - not least the previous NIE on Iraq in October 2002, when it grossly exaggerated the weapons threat posed by Saddam Hussein. But this new assessment reflects the view of most nonpartisan Iraq specialists here, that the insurgency is becoming ever more sophisticated and more dangerous. The view is widespread that the war in Iraq is politically, if not militarily, close to unwinnable for the US.
"Is there a threat of civil war? - Yes," Sean McCormick, the National Security Council spokesman admitted to reporters yesterday. But, he argued, many of the worst scenarios previously predicted for Iraq, including famine and civil war, had not come to pass.
The bleak prognosis by US intelligence comes days after the administration asked Congress to approve a shift of $3.6bn (£2bn) of the $18bn earmarked for reconstruction in Iraq into short-term spending, to speed the training Iraqi defence forces, boost security and protect the country's oil industry.
Even Republicans on Capitol Hill are enraged at how less than $1bn of the promised $18bn has been spent. Richard Lugar, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, described the delays as "exasperating". Nebraska's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, was even blunter. "It's beyond pitiful, it's beyond embarrassing, it is now in the zone of dangerous," he said.
More fundamentally, the re-allocation of funds is being seen as a tacit admission by the administration that many of its long-term ambitions for Iraq, so dear to the neo-conservatives who argued most strongly for the 2003 invasion, are now a dead letter.
Thus far - despite Mr Kerry's fierce criticism, not to mention the growing chaos and bloodshed on the ground - Iraq has been a peripheral issue in the campaign. To the frustration of Democrats, Mr Bush has succeeded in depicting Iraq as just a segment of the "war on terror", an area where he scores far better in opinion polls than his Democratic opponent.
At the Republican convention in New York, the turmoil was barely mentioned. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, continues to make speeches implying Saddam had links with al-Qa'ida, and by extension with the 11 September terror attacks.
But Democrats are determined to turn the tactic against Mr Bush. "The President has frequently described Iraq as the central front in the war on terror," said Senator Joe Biden, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and widely tipped as a possible Secretary of State should Mr Kerry win on 2 November. "By that measure the war on terror is in trouble."Reuse content