IRAQ: Is there Civil War in Iraq?

IRAQ: Is there Civil War in Iraq?

September 16, 2005 4:37 pm (EST)

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Back in July, John Burns of the New York Times posed a provocative question: If there’s civil war in Iraq, how will we know it? The answer may be unclear, but the question holds particular relevance after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, whose al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed credit for a string of recent suicide bombings in Baghdad, called on September 14 for an “all-out war against [Shiites], whereever they are in Iraq.” Lionel Beehner,staff writer for, asked several experts their opinions of what constitutes a civil war, and whether the situation in Iraq qualifies or not.

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow of foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the Iraq Index:

The kind of civil war I’m worried about is of the ethnic-cleansing kind, where people form militias and clear out neighborhoods. Nothing close to this kind of situation is happening in Iraq now. People are trying to spark it, but it’s not really happening. Also, look at the top political leaders. With the exception of a few Sunnis, I see no other leaders encouraging civil war.

I also think the nature of the recent casualties is quite similar to what it’s been all along. It’s a little more targeted toward one type of ethnic group versus the randomness before, but that seems more in the spirit of attempted provocation. If you saw the militia-style combats—clearing out neighborhoods, people fighting each other and getting killed in pitched gun battles versus car bombs, or leaders calling for more organized conflict—then that would constitute a civil war.

Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service:

Civil war is organized violence designed to change the political structure or governance within a country, or internal conflict within a state. For example, Nicaragua’s contras [back in the 1980s] were conducting a civil war. In the Middle East, in this context, it’s taken to mean war between ethnicities. But any insurgency against a government is, in my definition, a form of civil war.

This week it’s definitely become clearer that we’ve entered civil war, but whether it’s a sustained or permanent feature, we don’t know. Also, I wouldn’t say it’s full-blown, that is, where it’s neighborhood against neighborhood. We have seen a low-level Shiite reaction using militias, not full-blown reprisals, but I don’t think you need that to meet the definition; just because you don’t have one side fighting back doesn’t mean you’re not in a civil war. 

Marina Ottaway, senior associate and co-director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy and Rule of Law Project:

To go from acts of terrorism to civil war you need two population groups deliberately targeting each other. As long as it is insurgents trying to kill people to dissemminate terror, and the population is angry at the terrorists, that does not constitute civil war. In the case of Iraq, we would talk of civil war if the insurgents, who are overwhelmingly Sunni, started to deliberately target Shiites (or Kurds) and the targeted group reacted by holding every Sunni responsible, and thus would seek revenge against all Sunnis. I’m very hesitant to say you have a civil war in Iraq now. There’s no evidence, for example, the Sunni insurgents are deliberately targeting Kurds. But I’m beginning to see elements of a civil war. No doubt the insurgents are targeting Shiites, and there were also some reports after these last few bombings [in Baghdad] that Shiite militias have been deployed along with the Iraqi army, which, while understandable under the circumstances, would indicate the beginning of a situation toward civil war.

We saw this happening in South Africa between 1990-94, where there were lots of attacks in townships by groups of Zulus, who were immigrant mine workers housed in Johannesburg’s hostels. These attacks were politically rather than ethnically motivated and the mine workers became essentially the arm of the army. But what happened after these attacks is the population of these townships, ethnically mixed but not predominantly Zulu, started seeing not just the armed groups as the enemy but anyone who belonged to that same ethnicity. Fortunately, progress toward a negotiated settlement in South Africa halted the cycle of attacks before the country could sink into a full-blown civil war. I think Iraq is sliding very closely in that direction. It’s not quite there yet, but there is no longer a viable political process underway to halt the slide into civil war.

David Phillips, senior fellow and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action:

It’s already civil war. Civil war is sectarian-based conflict that’s systematic and coordinated. This has been going on for some time [in Iraq]. I’d say the bombing in Najaf in the months after Saddam’s statue was toppled [in April, 2003] was the opening salvo. There are many levels of intensity to civil conflict, but when you look at the steady drip of casualties [in Iraq] and the effect that has on the psyches of Iraqis, I think that qualifies as civil war. Zarqawi’s assertion this week [calling for sectarian violence] just confirms what we’ve seen going on all along.

Next, what happens is the political process breaks down and sectarian strife worsens, Iraqi Kurds withdraw their cooperation from the government, ethnic conflict ensues, and Iraq starts to fragment. This will force the United States to manage the deconstruction of Iraq, meaning the country is not viable, and the United States can’t have 140,000 troops in the middle of a civil war. We’ll have to withdraw troops to the north, draw a line in the thirty-sixth parallel [which formerly demarcated the largely Kurdish no-fly zone from the rest of Iraq], and secure U.S. national interests, in the form of Kirkuk’s oil fields and protecting democracy in northern Iraq.

Thomas X. Hammes, a former Marine colonel who served in Iraq in early 2004:

I think you know it when you see it, but we’re not there yet. In a true civil war, the mass of society on both sides is involved. Civil war would require family-on-family violence. That’s not the case yet. Remember, many of the Sunni tribes still have Shiite branches. Obviously, all sides are preparing for the possibility [of civil war], but I think as long as [Shiites and Sunnis] are talking and trying to work through the constitution, we’re OK. Remember, it took [the United States] six years to write the Articles of Confederation and even those were flawed. These things take time, and this an area that has never been exposed to democracy before.

Zarqawi seems to be trying to incite civil war. There are also indications he’s getting more Iraqis to help out and no longer solely relying on foreigners. It’s a terrorist campaign that’s trying to instigate civil war, but it’s not working: The [Shiite] militias haven’t come out in a big way because [Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali] Sistani and [radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-] Sadr are trying to keep the violence tamped down. Neither of them wants a civil war. I think the Shiites understand that if they just stay with the democratic process, they will end up running Iraq. So why should they get into a civil war to get what they already got peacefully? Of course, the Sunnis have run the place for 500 years, so they have this arrogance that they’re the only people who can run it.

Steven Metz, director of research at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute:

It’s really a whole spectrum because when we hear the phrase “civil war,” we think of the equivilance of total war. But I think there are lots of things at lower levels that constitute civil war. In terms of its definition, it’s obviously just war primarily internal to a country, even though it could have some external involvement. I’ve said all along the chances are perhaps fifty-fifty that the ultimate outcome [in Iraq] will be some sort of major civil war. I haven’t seen anything politically or militarily that would lead me to change that position.

The bottom line is Iraqis don’t have a strong sense of national identity but rather a sense of tribal and local identities. Countries like that are only able to avoid internal conflict if they have a powerful, central government, like Iraq had under Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately, a democracy is not the type of government equipped to hold together such a fractured society. I think if we want to conceptualize Iraq, we should look at what’s taken place in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa the past fifty years, where you had similary fractured states, and only those with strong, central authorities were mainly able to pull it together. The question in Iraq is if they’ll have this strong, central leader. Because of the repressive and parasitic nature of Hussein’s rule, there are no candidates. Anyone who had a base of followers or was charismatic [during the former regime] either ended up dead or so far removed from the country—like Ahmed Chalabi—they simply don’t have the base to do it.

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