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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Terror report clouds Bush narrative
Paul Reynolds
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The National Intelligence Estimate's conclusion that the war in Iraq is "a cause celebre for jihadists" and "breeds a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world..." is the intelligence equivalent of the little boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes.

The NIE, compiled from the views of all 16 US intelligence agencies, clouds the narrative that President George W Bush is trying to present - that Iraq was chosen by the jihadists as their "battlefield" and that it is simply a challenge that must be faced and a war that must be won.

George Bush
Mr Bush says the enemy is becoming more diffuse

Declassified excerpts were released in Washington on Tuesday after a report about the assessment appeared in the New York Times and the White House came under pressure to publish its conclusions.

The NIE accepts something that neither President Bush nor his close ally Tony Blair have acknowledged - that Iraq has fuelled international Islamic terrorism.

Mr Blair, for example, in his speech to the British Labour Party conference on Tuesday again pointed out that such terrorism preceded the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "This terrorism isn't our fault. We didn't cause it. It's not the consequence of foreign policy."

But he said nothing about Iraq adding to the problem, as this NIE does.

The NIE, however, is also careful to suggest that even without Iraq there would still be a jihadist movement.

Tensions and contradictions

The White House rushed out a fact sheet claiming that the estimate did not contradict what President Bush had previously said.

Iraq breeds a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world
NIE

However, the fact sheet itself provides evidence of the tensions and contradictions as it tries to reconcile the NIE conclusions with previous presidential statements.

It ignores the conclusion that Iraq is "breeding a deep resentment" of the US. It also ignores the phrase "cause celebre".

So the conclusion that Iraq has actually fuelled Islamic terrorism is not addressed.

Instead it picks out a NIE comment that: "We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere."

This enables it to quote Mr Bush who has said: "For al-Qaeda, Iraq is not a distraction from their war on America - it is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided."

The NIE does not disagree with that aim but it presents a far more complex picture about the background.

Nor does it blame Iraq alone for the growth of jihadism. Iraq is, though, at number two on its list of four causes - the others are Muslim grievances, the slow pace of reform in Muslim countries and anti-US sentiment among Muslims.

In his own comments about the document Mr Bush turned the whole thing round and claimed that "because of our successes against the leadership of al-Qaeda, the enemy is becoming more diffuse and independent".

This implies that al-Qaeda is somehow on the defensive.

'Greatest vulnerability'

The NIE does not quite come to that specific conclusion.

The Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror
NIE
It acknowledges that "United States-led counter-terrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qaeda and disrupted its operations" but it goes on to to say that al-Qaeda remains the "greatest threat to the Homeland".

It assesses that "the global jihadist movement - which includes al-Qaeda, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells - is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts."

Its reference to the spread of the jihadist movement runs counter to what Mr Bush said in Atlanta on 7 September: "America is winning the war on terror."

Both sides of the debate can rally round some other conclusions from this document.

The most important is its recognition that the solution probably lies with Muslims themselves: "The jihadists' greatest vulnerability is that their ultimate political solution - an ultra-conservative interpretation of Sharia-based governance spanning the Muslim world is unpopular with the vast majority of Muslims."

In a key sentence it says: "The Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror."

It therefore suggests a concentration of policies designed to separate extremists from moderates.

"Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders, " it states.

Few would disagree with that conclusion.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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