A civil war in Iraq could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, pitting the region's rival Islamic sects against each another, National Intelligence director John Negroponte said in an unusually frank assessment Tuesday.
"If chaos were to descend upon Iraq or the forces of democracy were to be defeated in that country . . . this would have implications for the rest of the Middle East region and, indeed, the world," Negroponte said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on global threats.
Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad before taking over as the nation's top intelligence official last April.
Iraqis have faced a chain of attacks and reprisals since bombs destroyed the gold dome of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last week. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died.
President Bush condemned the surge in violence and said Iraqis must make a choice between "a free society or a society dictated . . . by evil people who will kill innocents." Later, in an interview with ABC News' World News Tonight, he said he did not believe the escalation of civil unrest would lead to a general civil war.
Negroponte tried to focus on progress in Iraq, but he acknowledged a civil war would be a "serious setback" to the global war on terror.
"The consequences for the people of Iraq would be catastrophic," he said. "Clearly, it would seriously jeopardize the democratic political process on which they are presently embarked. And one can only begin to imagine what the political outcomes would be."
Saudi Arabia and Jordan could support Iraq's Sunnis, Negroponte said. And Iran, run by a Shiite Islamic theocracy, "has already got quite close ties with some of the extremist elements" inside Iraq, he added.
While Iraq's neighbors "initially might be reluctant" to get involved in a broader Sunni-Shiite conflict, "that might well be a temptation," Negroponte said.
Still, he told senators he is seeing progress in the overall political and security situation in Iraq.
"And if we continue to make that kind of progress, yes, we can win in Iraq," he said.
James Jeffrey, the State Department coordinator for Iraq, told reporters Tuesday that Iraqi security forces have managed to establish a normal and calm situation - "by Iraq standards."
The level of violence, he said, was about the same as before the shrine bombing.
RIPPLES IN THE REGION: WHAT CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ COULD MEAN
SYRIA: President Bashar al-Assad's government is under American and international pressure over its role in Lebanon. Syria could benefit from the diversion of a civil war in Iraq, with which it has a porous border that has been an entry point for Sunni insurgents.
TURKEY: A restive Kurdish minority lives along Turkey's southeastern border. Turkey would worry that an independent Kurdish state across that border would inspire unrest and demands for secession to create a larger Kurdish nation.
SAUDI ARABIA : The Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, the state religion, has traditionally viewed Shiites as heretics. But there is a minority Shiite population, living mainly in the Eastern Province, site of the oil fields. With a Shiite state bordering that area, the royal family would worry that this minority could become a fifth column.
KUWAIT: This oil-rich emirate, ruled by Sunnis, has a substantial Shiite minority. A breakaway Shiite state in southern Iraq could inspire restiveness and give Kuwaiti Shiites an ally next door in disputes with the government.
BAHRAIN: A Sunni emir rules here, the site of an important American naval base. There is also an increasingly restive Shiite majority. If full-scale civil war breaks out in Iraq, worries about terrorist attacks here would increase.
JORDAN: King Abdullah II, a Sunni, has expressed fears that Shiite domination of Iraq, or a breakup of the country, could produce a "Shiite arc" stretching from Iran through Lebanon. Any civil war or breakup of Iraq, he also has to fear, would play to the advantage of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and an enemy of Abdullah at home. The al-Qaida group is a prime suspect in the bombing of the gold-domed shrine in Samarra that set off the Sunni-Shiite strife last week.
LEBANON: Shiites in southern Lebanon have a historical bond with those in Iraq, and the Shiite Hezbollah Party, which maintains the only armed militia left from civil war days, has close ties with Iran and Syria. If a breakup of Iraq further increases Iran's regional power, Hezbollah's power can be expected to grow, too.
IRAN: So far, Iran has benefited from the American invasion because it replaced an entrenched enemy, Saddam Hussein, with a government led by Shiite officials from two parties whose militias trained in Iran during the Hussein years. Iran could be expected to support its Shiite brethren in any civil war. In addition, greater turmoil in Iraq would divert attention from Iran's nuclear ambitions and complicate America's efforts to stop them.