T Nation

Iraqi Civil War?


Given the opinion polls showing a lot of Americans think there will be a civil war, and certain congressional members on TV claiming there is one already, I think it would be interested to canvass views on this topic.

I think there could be one, but I don't think it's a given, or that it's more likely than not -- though I do think it is more worrisome than "the insurgency."

Here's an interesting post on the subject, which looks at a few views:


[Jim Lindgren, March 21, 2006 at 1:34am] 0 Trackbacks / Possibly More Trackbacks

Civil War in Iraq?--

In the last two days, former Prime Minister Allawi's claim that Iraq was experiencing a Civil War was reported relatively uncritically by the local and national TV news reporters that I happened to see.

Wretchard at the Belmont Club has an analysis ( http://fallbackbelmont.blogspot.com/2006/03/reason-to-believe.html ):

[i]So what's the truth? The principle in determining truth should be to apply the factual indicator test. A civil war is a visible event whose indicators includes the insubordination of armed units, mass refugee flows, the rise of rival governments, etc. The test is whether those events are being observed. What famous individuals say about a situation is a shortcut for encapsulating a factual assessment; it describes reality as public figures see it but is not the reality itself. That remains a mystery until developments unfold.

One interesting indicator of how the US military sees the situation are its plans to turn over large parts of the country to Iraqi forces. Bloomberg reports:

   [quote] March 17 (Bloomberg) ? The U.S. hopes to hand over 75 percent of Iraq to Iraqi Security Forces by the end of the summer, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Baghdad said. ``All indications are that we will make that,'' Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, said from Baghdad during a briefing televised at the Pentagon today, adding that he didn't``want to be so precise as to put myself in a box.'' ...[/quote]

This apparently innocuous statement [shortened here at VC] contains a wealth of implication. It primarily suggests confidence, but it also admits that while Iraqi forces are coming along, they are not yet decisive without the assistance of US forces. The insurgency in Anbar, though contained, has not yet been stamped out, though sometime between now and the end of summer more inroads will be made upon it if Chiarelli's statements are any guide to events.

Politically what's interesting is how the narrative has changed. Nobody is talking about the Sunni insurgency succeeding any more. Even the press hardly makes the claim of an insurgency on the brink of success. . . .[/i]

After quoting Juan Cole saying that the "guerrillas are really no more than mosquitoes to US forces," Wretchard continues:

[i]Cole forgets to remind the reader [w]hat mosquitoes did for the French in Algeria, the Russians in Afghanistan and even pushed the Israelis out of Lebanon. The enormity of the victory against the insurgency was never a given. In some respects the US achievement was historical. Whatever else happens, this should be remembered.

Cole also rejected assertions that Iraq was in Civil War.

   [quote] [Myth:] Iraq is already in a civil war, so it does not matter if the US simply withdraws precipitately, since the situation is as bad as it can get.

    No, it isn't. During the course of the guerrilla war, the daily number of dead has fluctuated, between about 20 and about 60. But in a real civil war, it could easily be 10 times that. Some estimates of the number of Afghans killed during their long set of civil wars put the number at 2.5 million, along with 5 million displaced abroad and more millions displaced internally. Iraq is Malibu Beach compared to Afghanistan in its darkest hours. . . .[/quote]

In my view, the shift of meme from the "insurgency" to a "civil war" is a backhanded way of admitting the military defeat of the insurgency without abandoning the characterization of Iraq [a]s an American fiasco. It was Zarqawi and his cohorts themselves who changed the terms of reference from fighting US forces to sparking a 'civil war'. With any luck, they'll lose that campaign too.[/i]


I am a little amazed by the mentality of anyone who didn't think there would be a civil war. That area was not peaceful before Saddam took over.


One of the ways Saddam was very "effective," if that is the right word, was in keeping the sectarian conflicts at bay. Unfortunately, his methods were not acceptable -- we'll see what happens.

I personally think there are several strong factors that weigh strongly against a civil war, at least for everyone save al Queda.

The Sunnis have been instigators, but they don't want an all-out civil war -- they'd get crushed, and Iran might come in. The Shia don't want it either -- they might want Iran as an ally, but they don't want to be a fief (especially the leaders). And they don't want anything blowing up while there are still significant U.S. forces present.


there will bea civil war, if it hasnt begun already but it isnt necessarily because of america,,, the middle east much like africa was carved up with arbitrary lines by the british n french powers after the fall of the Ottomans (ww1),, all this was done without even looking at the native populations ie kurds in turkey iraq and iran or the hashemite kingdom of jordan,, the only reason why problems dint come up earlier is because arabian ruller (saddam hussein) ruled with an iron fist and people dint have time to think of their own self determination,, untill now,,,


Aye, there's the rub.


Define "civil war".

As I understand a civil war requires each side to hold territory, like the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This still seems like terrorism and sectarian violence.

I think the use of the term civil war is being bandied about for political purposes and is not accurate.


That point Zap, is one I think Christopher Hitchens echoed in a very interesting article the other day:


The Stone Face of Zarqawi
Iraq is no "distraction" from al Qaeda.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

In February 2004, our Kurdish comrades in northern Iraq intercepted a courier who was bearing a long message from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to his religious guru Osama bin Laden. The letter contained a deranged analysis of the motives of the coalition intervention ("to create the State of Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates" and "accelerate the emergence of the Messiah"), but also a lethally ingenious scheme to combat it. After a lengthy and hate-filled diatribe against what he considers the vile heresy of Shiism, Zarqawi wrote of Iraq's largest confessional group that: "These in our opinion are the key to change. I mean that targeting and hitting them in their religious, political and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies . . . and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger."

Some of us wrote about this at the time, to warn of the sheer evil that was about to be unleashed. Knowing that their own position was a tenuous one (a fact fully admitted by Zarqawi in his report) the cadres of "al Qaeda in Mesopotamia" understood that their main chance was the deliberate stoking of a civil war. And, now that this threat has become more imminent and menacing, it is somehow blamed on the Bush administration. "Civil war" has replaced "the insurgency" as the proof that the war is "unwinnable." But in plain truth, the "civil war" is and always was the chief tactic of the "insurgency."

Since February 2004, there have been numberless attacks on Shiite religious processions and precincts. Somewhat more insulting to Islam (one might think) than a caricature in Copenhagen, these desecrations did not immediately produce the desired effect. Grand Ayatollah Sistani even stated that, if he himself fell victim, he forgave his murderers in advance and forbade retaliation in his name. This extraordinary forbearance meant that many Shiites--and Sunnis, too--refused to play Zarqawi's game. But the grim fact is, as we know from Cyprus and Bosnia and Lebanon and India, that a handful of determined psychopaths can erode in a year the sort of intercommunal fraternity that has taken centuries to evolve. If you keep pressing on the nerve of tribalism and sectarianism, you will eventually get a response. And then came the near-incredible barbarism in Samarra, and the laying waste of the golden dome.

It is not merely civil strife that is partly innate in the very make-up of Iraq. There could be an even worse war, of the sort that Thomas Hobbes pictured: a "war of all against all" in which localized gangs and mafias would become rulers of their own stretch of turf. This is what happened in Lebanon after the American withdrawal: The distinctions between Maronite and Druze and Palestinian and Shiite became blurred by a descent into minor warlordism. In Iraq, things are even more fissile. Even the "insurgents" are fighting among themselves, with local elements taking aim at imported riffraff and vice-versa. Saddam's vicious tactic, of emptying the jails on the eve of the intervention and freeing his natural constituency of thugs and bandits and rapists, was exactly designed to exacerbate an already unstable situation and make the implicit case for one-man "law and order." There is strong disagreement among and between the Shiites and the Sunnis, and between them and the Kurds, only the latter having taken steps to resolve their own internal party and regional quarrels.

America's mistake in Lebanon was first to intervene in a way that placed us on one minority side--that of the Maronites and their Israeli patrons--and then to scuttle and give Hobbes his mandate for the next 10 years. At least it can be said for the present mission in Iraq that it proposes the only alternative to civil war, dictatorship, partition or some toxic combination of all three. Absent federal democracy and power-sharing, there will not just be anarchy and fragmentation and thus a moral victory for jihadism, but opportunist interventions from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. (That vortex, by the way, is what was waiting to engulf Iraq if the coalition had not intervened, and would have necessitated an intervention later but under even worse conditions.) There are signs that many Iraqi factions do appreciate the danger of this, even if some of them have come to the realization somewhat late. The willingness of the Kurdish leadership in particular, to sacrifice for a country that was gassing its people until quite recently, is beyond praise.

Everybody now has their own scenario for the war that should have been fought three years ago. The important revelations in "Cobra II," by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, about the underestimated reserve strength of the Fedayeen Saddam, give us an excellent picture of what the successor regime to the Baath Party was shaping up to be: an Islamized para-state militia ruling by means of vicious divide-and-rule as between the country's peoples. No responsible American government could possibly have allowed such a contingency to become more likely. We would then have had to intervene in a ruined rogue jihadist-hosting state that was already in a Beirut-like nightmare.

I could not help noticing, when the secret prisons of the Shiite-run "Interior Ministry" were exposed a few weeks ago, that all those wishing to complain ran straight to the nearest American base, from which help was available. For the moment, the coalition forces act as the militia for the majority of Iraqis--the inked-fingered Iraqis--who have no militia of their own. Honorable as this role may be, it is not enough in the long run. In Iraq we have made some good friends and some very, very bad enemies. (How can anyone, looking down the gun-barrel into the stone face of Zarqawi, say that fighting him is a "distraction" from fighting al Qaeda?) Over the medium term, if our apparent domestic demoralization continues, the options could come down to two. First, we might use our latent power and threaten to withdraw, implicitly asking Iraqis and their neighbors if that is really what they want, and concentrating their minds. This still runs the risk of allowing the diseased spokesmen of al Qaeda to claim victory.

Second, we can demand to know, of the wider international community, if it could afford to view an imploded Iraq as a spectator. Three years ago, the smug answer to that, from most U.N. members, was "yes." This is not an irresponsibility that we can afford, either morally or practically, and even if our intervention was much too little and way too late, it has kindled in many Arab and Kurdish minds an idea of a different future. There is a war within the war, as there always is when a serious struggle is under way, but justice and necessity still combine to say that the task cannot be given up.

Mr. Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair, is the author of "A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq" (Penguin, 2003).


I think you're giving a little too much weight to rationality here. Remember, the Sunnis ran the country for decades, and now they're terrified of being left in their middle Iraq desert with no oil revenue and no future. And bear in mind that the Sunnis would most certainly have allies in a civil war too; Saudi Arabia is terrified of its Shiite minority, Syria would support Iraq's Sunnis as it already does, etc. I don't think Iraq's ina civil war yet certainly, but people worried about it are far from liberal fear-mongers.


Really? Each side has to have a distinct territory?

Do they have to charge at each other across a field with muskets and bayonnettes, too?


Yes, I believe this is an important component to classifying something a civil war.

If you are going to try to be funny you should have mentioned the cool hats they wore.


From Wikipedia:

A civil war is a war in which parties within the same country or empire struggle for national control of state power. As in any war, the conflict may be over other matters such as religion, ethnicity, or distribution of wealth. Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criteria for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not). In simple terms, a Civil War is a war in which a country fights another part of itself.

This is not changing into a civil war. Either it has been a civil war all along or it is not a civil war depending on how you define the term.

Since the factions are loose and not organized and are not regional (holding territory) it is tough to call this a civil war.

You cannot rightly call the Sunnis a faction and the Shiites another as they both participated in the voting and sending elected representatives to the Iraqi parliment.



Your own quote shows that there are in fact multiple accepted definitions.

Is this a republican thing? You think you can simply pick a definition you like so that you can call it something other than a civil war?

I will say this, if it is Iraqi faction fighting Iraqi faction, within Iraq, fighting for control of Iraq, then be honest, that is a civil war.

To say otherwise is political bullshit.


Not even iraqi's seem to consider this a civil war. Those fighting it consider themselve to be insurgents fighting a foreign occupier and those who have sided with the invaders. A civil war would imply there were two distinct political/social entities fighting each other, what we have in Iraq is a collective of loosely organized though fairly sophisticated groups that do not have any kind of unifying political/social agenda. Some of them are fighting the american's as occupiers, others are killing members of certain tribes based on long standing tribal feuds that were held in check prior to the disruption of the iraqi infrastructure. Other groups are purly religious entities, others are groups of outside instigators trying to prevent a stable, secular democracy from taking root in an islamic country. None of these groups are unified and none of them has any real plan for creating any sort of unified government.

If/when the iraqi's develope a unified national government that can reestablish the rule of law, things should settle down. We have the responsibility to stay there as long as we can facilitate that transition in a way that helps rather than hinders the situation.

So no, not a civil war. Not a good situation either but not a civil war.


Okay, I'll agree at THIS POINT, that is hasn't become a civil war, because they are busy fighting the US.

If Iraqi's generally start fighting each other... such as when Iraqi forces are in charge, all the US would have to do is leave for it to turn into a civil war.

With the US in place, it gets harder to call. So, perhaps I misunderstood the commentary above.


Yes there are two definitions. By the more rigorous criteria this is not a civil war.

By the looser criteria this has been a civil war for a couple years.

It is not changing into a civil war. It either has been or is not a civil war depending on the definition you prefer.

People that are claiming it is turning into a civil war either don't understand the definition or are saying it for political purposes.


It's not that it has yet. I don't think too many responsible people are claiming that. It's that it may be headed in that direction. All the more reason for us to be there. You break it you buy it.


Per Michael Yon, a blogger that has spent extensive time in Iraq, this is a civil war and has been for a long time.

My main point is that it is not changing to a civil war. Depending on the definition used either it has been a civil war or it is still not a civil war. Beware of the politician or commentator that claims it is changing into a civil war.

Anyone Smell Smoke?

The Iraqi Civil War
Nobody knows what the future will bring for Iraq. In my opinion, it?s already in a civil war, though many people seem afraid to say it. Actually, the reluctance is more likely ordinal in nature?-no one wants to be the first to say what many know to be true. Many now-stable democracies have suffered civil wars.

Democracy, despite its inherent nobility, is seldom easy or pretty. At its best, democracy is a reflection of the ?people,? and we all know what ?they? are like.

  • (Mission Impossible, Mission Accomplished 23 February 2005)

I wrote those words more than one year ago. Hatred that has been pressurized is a potent and malevolent fuel. Although I?d been in Iraq for just two months, I?d seen enough to know it was too late to talk about hiding the matches?a fire had broken out. The tangled briars of tribal enmities had overgrown, dense from decades of Saddam Hussein?s genocidal death squads. Wrenching that dictatorship changed the political landscape and in the process pumped fresh air into a smoldering fire.

Throughout 2005, I said in writing, on the radio and television that Iraq is in a state of Civil War. It had been in that state for decades. I?d point to all the kindling heaped around the country and point to the smoke on the horizon, but most people politely dismissed the warnings. Now the fire is bigger. Listen. Listen! Iraq is in a state of Civil War. Much bigger than it was a year ago, and next year it will be bigger still, if we do not recognize that there is a FIRE!

There is no reason why Iraq and its proud people cannot make it. There is nothing written in any holy scripture ? so far as I know ? that says Iraq cannot make it. Iraq can, but will it? Not if we don?t stop quibbling over definitions and just come to grips that the fire is growing. This is not a fire we can afford to leave to natural forces. Not in that tinderbox we call the Middle East



You have to admit that having a large outside occupier (the US in this case) greatly confuses the issue.

If the US pulled out tomorrow and the internal fighting continued, then it would certainly be a civil war.

Perhaps now there are two conflicts... one against the US by so-called insurgents and one between factions within Iraq.

However, I don't think it qualified as a civil war from day one, because if somebody came to the US (or Canada) and created a new government for us, nothing says we have to accept it. I would think of it as fighting a foreign invader, not "my" own government.

It's not cut and dried.


It certainly is not simple to define.



Good article. Not about civil war but about what is happening, what works and what doesn't.

Reality, not politics.