AC: "Everyone's planning on what they're going to do once America leaves."
JOHN KING: Now Iraq and a call to start bringing the troops home by Christmas. That's what a top Senate Republican says he wants. Good news, if it happens, for thousands of American families, but also a sign of very bad news for the mission.
That's because he wants them home to send a message, to serve as a kick in the pants to the Iraqi government, which Senator Warner believes cannot get its act together. He's not alone in that conclusion; the latest National Intelligence Estimate backs him up.
KING (voice-over): In a word, the latest U.S. intelligence assessment of Iraq is bleak. So downbeat a leading Senate Republican just back from Iraq called on President Bush to quickly announce a modest troop withdrawal.
SEN. JOHN WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Certainly in 160,000 plus, say 5,000 could begin to redeploy and be home to their families and loved ones no later than Christmas of this year.
KING: At issue is the new National Intelligence Estimate on prospects for Iraq's stability. This unclassified summary distributed on Capitol Hill cites some security improvements since the last assessment in January but says, "the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high. Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled."
Among its sober finding, al Qaeda in Iraq "retains the ability to conduct high profile attacks," Iraq's government will become "more precarious over the next 6 to 12 months," and Iraqi security forces "have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition."
Democrats for months have been demanding Mr. Bush start bringing troops home. And to them the intelligence estimate was fresh ammunition. "Further pursuit of the administration's flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation's best interest," is how Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid put it.
Reid urged more Republicans to join Democrats in demanding troop withdrawals, and Senator Warner's assessment made increased pressure on the White House all but certain.
The Virginia Republican was careful to say the president and the president alone should decide how many troops and how fast, but he also was emphatic in the view that bringing troops home is the only way to force Iraq's government to do more.
WARNER: We simply cannot, as a nation, stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody's attention.
KING: The president is vacationing in Crawford, Texas, where the White House said Mr. Bush respects Senator Warner but will base troop levels on Pentagon recommendations due next month.
GORDON JOHNDROE, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: I just think it's important that we wait right now to hear from the commanders on the ground about the way ahead.
KING: The new assessment did give the White House some ammunition in the debate over bringing troops home or pulling them back from Iraq's most volatile neighborhoods, suggesting "changing the mission of Coalition forces would erode security gains achieved thus far."
But its sharp criticism of Iraq's government also emboldened those in Congress who think Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki should be forced out.
The White House says Mr. Bush stands by the prime minister and that those decisions are best left to the Iraqi people.
KING: That's the sober backdrop. Now the implications for that. We turn to CNN's Michael Ware in Baghdad.
Michael, let's start with Senator Warner's call to bring some troops home. Essentially shock therapy. He says you need to shock the Iraqis into stepping up. Any chance it would work?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not, John. I mean, with respect to Senator Warner, I mean, he's dreaming if he thinks that by pulling U.S. troops out, that in any way that's going to prod the Iraqi government.
In fact, what that would do is spur this so-called government. Indeed, this government is not a government at all. This is a loose coalition of largely Iranian-backed militia.
And as the National Intelligence Estimate report clearly shows, what's really going on right now is that everyone is jockeying for position in the expectation that American troops are going to draw down. Everyone's planning on what they're going to do once America leaves. And honestly, none of it's pretty, and none of it is going to serve U.S. interests.
So pulling a few thousand troops out is just going to be a signal to all these militias to keep the pressure up on America. And, as the report says, it's going to be a clear message to Iran to keep the foot on the accelerator and maximize its advantage during this crisis of American foreign policy.
KING: Let's follow up a little bit more on the political situation. The NIE, the National Intelligence Estimate, is very down on Prime Minister Maliki and the prospects of him getting the government's act together. It says his split with the Sadrists is growing.
Yet the report says essentially that it's banking on Shiite leaders to recognize that searching for any alternative would paralyze the government. A safe bet?
WARE: That's true. That's absolutely true. The NIE makes a searingly frank report of what's actually happening here. I mean, you have to respect what the intelligence chiefs have done. They've really laid it bare.
But the problem is that this government cannot deliver on any of the things that America wants. And to be honest, large factions of it have no desire or interest to deliver on what America wants.
So this intelligence estimate and its perception, its view of this Iraqi government is searingly accurate, John.
KING: And so, Michael, amid all the pressure on the Maliki government and amid some calls here by senior lawmakers in the United States that he should step down or be forced out. There's word a high-powered U.S. lobbying firm is helping a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi.
How is that going down in a country where I would suspect many people are already tired enough of what they consider too much U.S. interference?
WARE: Well, a lot of people are looking for change. I mean, everybody knows that Prime Minister Maliki is really, in essence, a lame duck.
This is a man who's leading a government where the currency of political power is the size of your militia. How many men at arms do you command? And he has no militia at all.
So he has very little authority over his own government. Indeed, one very senior U.S. source said that, of his 37 cabinet ministers, there's only actually three that Maliki can count on.
So to hear that one of the contenders, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, America's closest political ally in this country and a long-term intelligence asset, has engaged the services of a Republican lobbying firm to boost his chance in the eyes of members of Congress, in some sense really isn't a surprise.
I mean, Iran is preparing its candidates. So it doesn't surprise me that former Prime Minister Allawi, using money that I'm sure he's been garnering from here in the region, from America's Arab allies like Saudi Arabia, is working to undermine Maliki, to press the case for change.
And as we revealed on CNN, there's even American frontline U.S. generals who believe that this government should just be wiped away by either constitutional or non-constitutional means, and for the short to medium-term at least, these American generals don't believe that a democracy is necessary to replace it, and perhaps it's best that one doesn't for now.
KING: A sober assessment to say the least. Michael Ware in Baghdad. Michael, thank you very much.