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What ‘Civil War’ Means for Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: December 4, 2006

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The current debate over how to label the bloodshed in Iraq—set off by a number of news outlets’ decisions to describe it as a “civil war”—is nothing new. John F. Burns wrote in the New York Times back in July 2005 of violence “ever more centered on sectarian killings, with Sunni insurgents targeting hundreds of Shiite and Kurdish civilians” and reports of Shiite death squads “retaliating by abducting and killing Sunni clerics and community leaders.”

In September of last year, CFR.org asked a number of experts whether Iraq qualified as a civil war. Most responded that it was approaching one. Violence in the country has since taken on a new ferocity and an intensified sectarian nature, as the number of bodies in Baghdad’s morgue pile up. Also, defeatism has set in among some officials, both American and Iraqi, which stands in marked contrast to the higher hopes last year at this time ahead of permanent elections.

But in Washington there remains little consensus (Newsweek) on what kind of war is underway in Iraq. White House officials say it is too fluid and amorphous to be a civil war. After all, there is still an insurgency raging; Shiites are feuding among themselves in southern Iraq; and Sunnis hardly constitute a unified camp. Most civil wars, moreover, are ideological in nature, not sectarian, historians say. Domestic politics also plays an important role. Donald Kagan of Yale University says use of the term “civil war” is a ploy (PBS) by those favoring a U.S. pullout from Iraq.

Yet others say Iraq qualifies as a civil war. “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” says CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot, in this new Backgrounder. Outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Iraq was "much worse" (al-Jazeera) than civil wars in Lebanon and elsewhere. Military analysts say there are important implications if Iraq has graduated from sectarian strife or an insurgency to civil war. Some analysts say the Pentagon should throw out its counterinsurgency playbook and choose one of two options: Pick a side (and make sure it wins out militarily) or mediate a power-sharing settlement.

In the midst of this debate, President Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan. The timing of his trip coincided with a leaked memo that questioned the Iraqi leader’s competence. Bush reaffirmed his faith in the prime minister, while Maliki in turn promised his forces would be able to secure Iraq by next June. Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Middle East military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes that effective security forces may not be enough to avert a split-up of Iraq or a larger civil war; a “lasting political compromise” is also required.

The viability of Iraqi security forces will also factor into whether Bush adopts the recommendations put forth by the upcoming Iraq Study Group. The bipartisan commission’s report, due out December 6, is expected to recommend pulling back fifteen combat brigades (NYT) (without setting a fixed date for withdrawal) and opening dialogue with the Iranians and Syrians. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley told Meet The Press the president will review recommendations by the commission and suggested there “are going to be significant changes” (Video) in Iraq. Another leaked memo, sent to the White House by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld two days before his departure, called for a "major adjustment" of the Iraq strategy and admitted slow progress.

Criticisms of the commission are already surfacing. Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsch says its report will be a “bust” because of its call for consensus-building. Fred Kaplan of Slate agrees, adding that U.S. leverage over events in Iraq is “miniscule.”

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