Three years after Saddam's fall, US report says Iraq is in turmoil

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A confidential assessment of the security situation across Iraq carried out by US officials has portrayed a country beset by violence and sectarian division and where the stability of six of its 18 provinces is considered "serious" and one is said to be "critical".

The Basra region, controlled by British troops, is one of those where the situation is described as serious and the report says crime, intimidation, assassinations and smuggling are commonplace.

Three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein and on the third anniversary of the day when US Marines organised the toppling of his statue in central Baghdad, the publication of the report carried out by the US embassy in Iraq reveals the chaos and violence now faced by large numbers of the Iraqi population.

Reflecting the recent upsurge in sectarian violence - leading many observers to believe Iraq is heading towards a civil war - the report also suggests that the overall security situation in parts of the country is getting worse.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak became the latest leader to suggest that Iraq was close to civil war. In damaging comments over the weekend, he also claimed that Shia inside Iraq were more loyal to Iran than to their own country.

The Egyptian leader's televised comments about the influence of Iran, at a time when Iraqi leaders are struggling to form a government that would allow the Sunni minority to join a national unity cabinet, were dismissed by Iraqi leaders. President Jalal Talabani said yesterday he was surprised and annoyed by the remarks. "Reality and historical facts show that the Shia always have been patriotic and genuine Iraqis. This unfair accusation against Shia is baseless," he said.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw also took issue with Mr Mubarak's comments, saying that there was a "high level of slaughter" in Iraq but that the country had not descended into civil war.

Yesterday, at least six bombs exploded in Iraq on the so-called Freedom Day holiday. The roadside bombings and a blast on a minibus left at least five people dead. US forces killed eight people they accused of being insurgents - five by troops in northern Baghdad and three in an airstrike.

The internal US report, made up of 10 pages of briefing points and entitled Provincial Stability Assessment, maps out the situation across Iraq.

Obtained by The New York Times, the report warns about the increasing power of Shia groups and also details concern about the Kurdish-Arab divide in the north, especially around Mosul and Kirkuk.

In the south, the report refers to Basra, under the control of British forces and, for the first two years of the occupation, considered to be considerably calmer than the situation in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni Triangle, where the situation in Anbar province was described as "critical". Yet it details how the violence in the south has also been increasing and that economic development has been "hindered by weak government".

While US President George Bush and his senior officials portray the situation in Iraq as still requiring tough work, they generally argue that progress is being made.

The report, however, offers few examples of success. It says that the provincial government in Najaf is able to provide stability for the province and that the flow of religious pilgrims points to economic development possibilities for the future. But even Najaf and Karbala only receive a moderate rating for security.

In all, six of the 18 provinces are described as stable from a security perspective, local government is said to be working in five and economic development is taking place in three.

The conflict's key players

* GEORGE BUSH:

Once a president with 80 per cent approval ratings after responding to the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US with wars in Afghanistan and later Iraq. Now in his second term, Bush's latest ratings (36 per cent) look more like Nixon at his nadir.

TONY BLAIR:

Buoyed by the successful Kosovo intervention and keen to cement his place in history, Blair chose to join America's invasion of Iraq. His uncompromising support of US foreign policy has seen him lose the trust of close allies.

GRAND AYATOLLAH ALI SISTANI:

Supreme leader of Iraq's Shia majority, Ali Sistani encouraged the separation of religion and politics until the war and its aftermath made him one of Iraq's most important political and religious figures.

MUQTADA AL SADR:

A middle-ranking Shia cleric before the war, Muqtada al-Sadr is now one of Iraq's most powerful figures as the commander of the Mehdi Army militia and the de facto leader of Baghdad's Shia slum Sadr city.

ABU MUSAB AL ZARQAWI:

Once a relatively low-level Islamist militant wanted by Jordan on terror charges, Zarqawi slipped into Iraq on the eve of war to direct Arab fighters and become one of the world's most wanted terrorists. Washington has a $25m (£14m) bounty on his head.

SADDAM HUSSEIN:

The former president of Iraq seems a different person since he was dragged from his hiding place in December 2003. Far from beaten, Saddam has maintained a formidable presence throughout his trial. Genocide charges have now been laid.

DONALD RUMSFELD:

The neocon and most prominent public advocate of the Bush administration's ''war on terror" has found even some of his most hawkish allies criticising the way the Pentagon has handled the war in Iraq. Despite increasing calls for his resignation, Rumsfeld's closeness to the Bush family means it is unlikely the Secretary of Defence will step down.

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