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‘Civil War’ Becomes the Question

Prepared by: Michael Moran
Updated: March 22, 2006

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Is Iraq engulfed in a civil war? The debate has been raging for months on op-ed pages; in the halls of power in Washington, Tehran, and Baghdad; in military war colleges; and in ordinary conversations around the world. On Tuesday, President Bush weighed in, saying he believed Iraqis had pulled back from the brink since the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque last month in Samarra. Asked if he agreed with former Iraqi President Ayad Allawi, a man once championed by the Bush administration who now says civil war is raging in his country, Bush said: "I do not...This is a moment when the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart and they didn't. And that's a positive development."

Anthony Cordesman, a leading Middle East and intelligence expert, tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that three years after the invasion of Iraq, security for the average Iraqi is now worse than it was under Saddam Hussein. "We did not really prepare to liberate Iraq. Essentially, we sent in a bull to liberate a china shop. As a result, the [U.S.] legacy in many ways is very destructive."

With U.S. opinion polls showing disapproval of the war approaching the critical 70 percent barrier, the president, by his own admission, is on the stump trying to shore up American resolve on the war, acknowledging the toll the war has had on his presidency (NYT). The president has declined to give a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (BosGlobe), saying the decision to leave ''will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq." And the president's military planners are making contingency plans in case the possibility of civil war becomes reality. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlined these plans to Congress earlier this month, when he said the United States would rely on Iraq's security forces (WashPost) to put down a civil war should one break out.

The changing nature of the violence within the country is making the job of securing Iraq more difficult. As many as 700 people have been killed since the February 22 Samarra bombing and many of those deaths appear to be the result of interethnic conflict. Experts are wary that those charged with securing Iraq are themselves part of the problem. Matthew Sherman, a former Interior Ministry adviser, tells cfr.org the number of commandos with sectarian militia ties has jumped from roughly 6,000 to around 10,000 over the past year, while Brookings' Kenneth Pollack, an expert on the region, says militias are even more destabilizing than the insurgency.

Meanwhile, the conduct of some U.S. forces is, once again, under scrutiny. This week, TIME magazine reported on an alleged massacre of Iraqi civilians by American Marines bent on revenge after a roadside bombing claimed one of their own. Iraqi police have also blamed U.S. troops for the deaths of eleven people (Houston Chronicle), including a 75-year-old woman and a six-month-old infant, north of Baghdad.

In terms of support for U.S. policies in Iraq and the world at large, these incidents have meant the war has had a "clearly negative" impact on U.S. foreign policy, says Richard Haass, CFR president and head of policy planning at the State Department at the outbreak of the war. Haass tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman the war has weakened the United States both militarily and diplomatically in dealing with crises involving Iran and North Korea.

Still, the consensus of a group of experts, journalists, and military specialists interviewed by cfr.org is that the war is not yet lost, but Washington needs to press ahead with initiatives ranging from police reform to economic reconstruction.

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