The Implications of ‘Civil War’ in Iraq

The Implications of ‘Civil War’ in Iraq

It is unclear if classifying the conflict in Iraq as a civil war will have serious ramifications for U.S. military strategy there or, for that matter, U.S. domestic politics.

December 1, 2006 3:49 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:


Conflict Prevention

Wars and Conflict

This publication is now archived.


Several major media outlets have announced they will now call the conflict in Iraq a civil war. Most analysts agree the war has entered a new phase of violence but disagree whether it qualifies as a civil war. However it is classified, they say the struggle is not driven by ideological considerations, as was the case in Vietnam, as much as by sectarian differences, which more closely resembles past civil wars in Lebanon or Bosnia. There is further disagreement about what the policy implications are if Iraq has descended into a civil war or whether this necessitates a shift in military strategy. Some say it is merely a semantic debate without a major bearing on policy considerations.

Can the violence in Iraq be termed a civil war?

Experts disagree. By definition, a civil war involves an internal conflict between warring factions for political or territorial control of a state and results in at least one thousand casualties. “By any normally accepted definition, this is a civil war and has been for over a year,” says CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot agrees. “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” he says. “It seems like a civil war to me. I don’t understand the brouhaha over whether to call it a civil war or not.”

But others, including Phebe Marr, a Middle East scholar and author of The Modern History of Iraq, say the conflict is too “multifaceted and complex” to be labeled a civil war. There is no “lineup of one group on one side and one group on another,” Marr says, but rather “struggles for power within these groups.” Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University adds that Iraq does not have a civil war but rather “civil wars, plural—a series of wars with groups fighting one another; Shiites fighting each other as well as Sunnis.” 

How does the Iraq conflict compare to past civil wars?

Military experts say Iraq cannot be easily compared to the American Civil War or to the Vietnam War because the conflict is sectarian, not ideological, in nature. “Nobody has put forth any government manifesto laying out their ideas for how the country should be governed,” says Biddle. “It’s about which sectarian group runs the place.” Unlike America’s Civil War, moreover, Iraq’s neighbors have a vested interest in the outcome because it is part of a larger sectarian religious contest, says Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University, whereas the ideological divisions of the American Confederates or Unionists were not shared by Mexico or Canada.

Some historians say the war in Iraq is more comparable to the 1954-1962 Algerian war against the French or the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. Some elements of the Algerian struggle are seen in Iraq, such as the massacres of Muslims loyal to Western forces and the inability of the occupying power to track down sources of arms or win over domestic sympathies. In terms of casualty counts, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says in Iraq “we’re beyond Algeria’s kill rate but not quite at Lebanon’s.” In Iraq, more than one thousand civilians are dying per month, with as many as fourteen thousand dead since the beginning of 2006, according to the United Nations. By comparison, in Lebanon, roughly one thousand civilians were being killed per month for the first two years, and by 1977, thirty-five thousand Lebanese were dead as the conflict evolved in the public mind into a civil war.

What are the military implications of calling the conflict a civil war?

Experts say if Iraq qualifies as a civil war, then the standard counterinsurgency playbook—win locals’ hearts and minds, usher in political and economic reforms, hand off fighting to indigenous military—is rendered ineffective. For a civil war, they say, the United States has two options: choose a side or become an honest peace broker. Because the United States is not considered an impartial interlocutor in Iraq, says Bacevich, it must pick the latter option. “If we back the Shiites militarily, unless that results in a genuine decisive outcome or the Sunni equivalent of General [Robert E.] Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, this drives the war back into its insurgent character and creates a protracted conflict,” he says. Biddle says most civil wars are resolved when one side is defeated militarily, not by negotiated power-sharing settlements (which he adds typically take between five and ten years anyway). He cautions against the United States siding with any one side because of the delicate political balance in the region. “If we side with the Shiites and they repress the Sunnis,” Biddle says, “every other Sunni state in the region will conclude we’ve aligned ourselves with resurgent Shiism.”   

A civil war in Iraq does not necessitate a U.S. withdrawal, experts say. For example, the 2001 U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan came amidst a civil war between Northern Alliance and Taliban forces. “The Korean War was [also] a civil war,” Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist, told FOX. “We were right to stay and to defend one segment of Korea and create a democracy. So the idea that if it’s civil war, America ought to leave, I think is a false one.” Boot agrees. “There’s an assumption on the part of the administration that if it’s a civil war that means we shouldn’t be there and it’s not winnable,” he says. “Obviously it’s a sign that things aren’t going well. But just because it’s a civil war doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved.”

What does a civil war mean for Iraq’s neighbors?

Bacevich says, “If we say this is a civil war, this might get [Iraq’s neighbors] more interested and involved” in positive ways. But Yaphe says “the distinction” between sectarian violence and civil war “is meaningless to them.” She adds: “What you can ask of them hopefully is that they can use their influence to tamp down the violence. Nobody’s asking them to send troops inside Iraq.” If the United States comes out militarily on the side of the Iraqi Shiites, some experts predict Arab neighbors may intervene on the side of Iraq’s Sunnis. “Saudi and Jordanian support will make this a much bloodier affair but I wouldn’t want to overdo it,” says Gerecht. On the flip side, if U.S. forces redeploy, Gerecht says, “It’s only a question of time before the Shiite community grinds the Sunni holy warriors into the dust,” the result of which would be a “wave of Iraqi Sunnis fleeing for the Jordanian border that will remind you of biblical times.”

Colonel Matthew Moten, a professor of military history at West Point, says outside powers hold enormous influence over civil wars. He hypothesizes that if the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were to create a rump state in southern Iraq, for example, and Iran recognized it, this would give the new state a measure of legitimacy. Recalling the American Civil War, Moten points to President Abraham Lincoln’s concern that France or Britain would mediate the dispute or, worse, recognize the Confederacy.

What events triggered the debate over classifying the Iraqi conflict?

A number of major media outlets in autumn 2006, including the Los Angeles Times and NBC, announced their decision to refer to the conflict in Iraq as a “civil war” instead of “sectarian violence” or “civil strife.” Several prominent foreign policy officials, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, followed suit in November and indicated the violence in Iraq qualified as a civil war. On the ground, the fighting in Iraq has shifted from insurgents attacking Iraqi military and American targets to tit-for-tat violence between Shiites and Sunnis. The number of civilians dead also has risen sharply this year. Still, Bush administration officials rejected portrayals of Iraq as a civil war. “You have not yet had a situation,” White House Spokesman Tony Snow told reporters in late November 2006, “where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power but for territory.”

What are the domestic political implications of calling the conflict a civil war?

Moten says it may erode public support for the war and “give a great deal of rhetorical strength to those arguing we should get out [of Iraq].” Others say use of the term civil war is a deliberate attempt to hasten a U.S. withdrawal. “Most people regard civil wars as bigger things, more difficult, more complicated, more [difficult] to resolve without a long, hard war than does the alternative term,” Donald Kagan, a professor of history at Yale University, told the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Yet some experts say the terminology of the war will make little difference domestically. “It’s really a semantic argument,” says Gerecht.

Why has the White House refused the “civil war” label?

CFR’s Biddle says it stems from the Bush administration’s definition of success in Iraq as a stable democracy and defeat as a civil war. “If that is the way the debate has been framed for the past three years,” he says, “then to talk about a civil war is tantamount to defeat and admitting failure.” The Bush administration continues to refer to the conflict as primarily a Sunni insurgency led by al-Qaeda and “dead-enders,” not a struggle between ethno-religious sects. Yet Boot says the White House is “trying to deny the obvious.” It’s not clear that relabeling the war will have much effect on American public opinion. “Public support for the war has collapsed anyway,” says Bacevich. “I’m not sure what benefit [the Bush administration] gets from resisting to call it a civil war.”

More on:


Conflict Prevention

Wars and Conflict


Top Stories on CFR

Sub-Saharan Africa

PEPFAR’s twentieth anniversary should prompt reflection on some inconvenient truths for U.S.-Africa relations.


Americans need to understand their obligations to one another and to their country if U.S. democracy is to survive.

United States

In addition to minority communities and those on the political left, far-right extremism threatens violence against Republicans as well.