The writer Matthew Yglesias makes a bold assertion in The American Prospect magazine:
"For months now, skeptics of George W. Bush's Iraq policy have been warning that the present path could lead to bloody civil war. More recently, proponents of continued U.S. military presence have been warning that bloody civil war would be the result of a withdrawal. Both sides can, perhaps, stop warning -- the civil war has already begun. Recent events in Mosul, a multi-ethnic city in northern Iraq that is the country's third-largest after Baghdad and Basra, lack the clear-cut structure of a Fort Sumter but otherwise bear all the markings of ethnic and sectarian warfare.
He cites a column by Peter Galbraith noting that so many leaders of Mosul's police department were collaborating with the insurgents that the city's Kurds had formed a parallel security and government system. Yglesias believes this case is far from atypical:
"The commander of police in Tikrit, a Sunni Arab town that's been relatively peaceful, recently claimed that Israel and Iran (which is to say the Kurdish and Shiite factions that they have respectively aided) were responsible for the terrorist violence in Iraq when, in fact, his Sunni Arab coreligionists are to blame. American soldiers and junior officers are widely skeptical of the loyalty of Iraqi security forces throughout Sunni-majority areas; though senior commanders don't put it this way, their clear preference for relying on Kurdish troops to do the heavy lifting indicates that they see the same picture."
Neither the fact that some members of the Iraqi security force are insurgent double agents nor that strong differences exist between the Shia majority, the Sunnis who once governed, and the independence-minded Kurds are news. There is an insurgency underway, one so intermingled with international jihadi terrorists as to make a distinction pointless. Iraqis are killing Iraqis as part of this insurgent-terrorist guerilla campaign. Does this constitute a civil war? As with most such questions, it depends largely on one's definition.
The Correlates of War project, which for decades has attempted to quantify information about conflicts for rigorous academic study, offers a very simple definition:
"An internal war is classified as a major civil war if (a) military action was involved, (b) the national government at the time was actively involved, (c) effective resistance (as measured by the ratio of fatalities of the weaker to the stronger forces) occurred on both sides and (d) at least 1,000 battle deaths resulted during the civil war."
By that rudimentary definition, a civil war does indeed exist in Iraq -- and a "major" one at that. The COW definition is rather broad, however, and would include any significant insurgency and could conceivably cover even large terrorist operations or criminal enterprises such as narco-terrorists in Latin America or Al Capone-style gangsterism. Stanford political scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin offer a narrower definition that more closely mirrors the way most of us conceive of civil war:
"(1) They involved fighting between agents of (or claimants to) a state and organized, non-state groups who sought either to take control of a government, take power in a region, or use violence to change government policies. (2) The conflict killed or has killed at least 1000 over its course, with a yearly average of at least 100. (3) At least 100 were killed on both sides (including civilians attacked by rebels). The last condition is intended to rule out massacres where there is no organized or effective opposition."
While very similar to the COW definition, the qualification that the anti-government forces are fighting to gain control of the political apparatus is important. While the Kurds certainly have aspirations to a unified, independent Kurdistan, their actions as described by Yglesias and Galbraith are not aimed at that end but rather at establishing security and defeating an insurgent-terrorist movement that's working against their interests. The insurgents, meanwhile, are fighting primarily to coerce foreign interveners to leave Iraq. So, at present, civil war does not exist in the classic sense.
A more interesting question is whether such a conflict will break out in the near future. Yglesias argues that ethnic conflict is a likely outcome of the elections planned for January:
"Thus, contrary to the Bush administration's hopes, elections themselves will not solve Iraq's problems. The trouble is not merely that some factions within Iraq are opposed to the very idea of democracy (though no doubt some are), but that what's at stake in these sorts of disputes is the very nature of the political community to be governed democratically. A community that might be quite happy to govern itself democratically still has no reason to support a conception of majoritarian democracy that will guarantee its own subordination to a larger community to which it happens to have been yoked by the mapmakers of the British Empire."
This is a stronger possibility if, in the classic formulation, an election is merely a census, with the majority Shi'a winning power and ignoring the needs of the Sunni and Kurd minorities. Galbraith, too, believes this more likely than not:
"Any political settlement must take account of the fact that Iraq has broken apart and cannot be put back together again as a unitary state. The Bush administration has persisted in the belief that there is such a thing as 'the Iraqi people,' and that Iraq could become a multicultural democracy very much like the United States. As Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, put it in an April 2004 speech, 'The path to a new Iraq [is one] -- where the majority is not Sunni, Shi'a, Arab, Kurd, or Turkoman but Iraqi.'
"Iraq is not like the United States. It was put together by the victorious allies at the end of the First World War out of three disparate Ottoman vilayets (or provinces): Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. The country never commanded the loyalty of its citizens. Further, the ethnic and confessional lines of 80 years ago remain in place. Kurdistan in the north is Kurdish, with Turkoman and Christian minorities. The center is Sunni Arab, and the south is Shi'a Arab. (The city of Mosul is majority Arab and is not considered part of Kurdistan.) Only the city of Baghdad has changed, where Shi'a and Kurdish immigration has made Sunni Arabs a minority. Even so, each community lives largely in its own part of the city.
"Iraq's divisions are not just ethnic and religious. They are compounded by a bitter history in which both the Kurds and the Shi'a have suffered grievously, and by very different value systems that place secular, Western-oriented Kurds at one end of a spectrum and religiously inclined Shi'a at the other."
The degree of division between the three Iraqi factions is daunting, indeed. But is civil war inevitable? International investment analyst Gregory Djerejian says No. First, he notes, quite correctly, that international pressure from Turkey and the United States will preclude a breakaway Kurdistan. However strong and legitimate the Kurdish nationalist impulse may be, they are not going to be willing to risk another bloodbath to get independence if they can secure substantial regional autonomy from the post-Allawi successor government, especially if backed by some security guarantees from the United States.
He cites Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and National Security Council staffer under the Clinton Administration and huge critic of Bush Administration's handling of the Iraq War, who argues that a sense of Iraqi nationalism is actually much stronger than most believe. He challenges a proposal by Leslie Gelb for ethnic division of Iraq, arguing that it is a non-starter.
"Sunnis and Shiites are Arabs, they are not ethnically distinct. The Kurds are ethnically distinct. But the Sunnis and Shiites are not looking to set up their own nation, their own states. The Kurds would like to, but they are realistic enough, over the decade of suffering, to have learned that their interests are better served by being part of an Iraqi federation, in which they have a federal arrangement, than they would be to separate. Now, I know that you also propose a kind of federal status for everybody, but I think it only really applies in the case of the Kurds, where I think they're already ready to accept that, and the others are ready to concede it to them.
"I think it's a fundamental mischaracterization of Iraq to say that it's been held together. The Shiites identify themselves as Iraqis, they fought Shiites in Iran, loyally, as Iraqis, for 10 years, and died in larger numbers than the Sunnis did. Yes, this was a state created by outside powers, as just about every state in the region has been created by outside powers, with the exception of, I think, Egypt. But, it's just a fundamental mischaracterization to say that this has only been held together by a strong man, and now we should basically take it apart, and return it to its natural state. The natural state that you seem to be describing never existed before."
Indyk and Djerejian also note that the ethnic dispersion of people in Iraq is hardly tidy, with "Sunni" Baghdad populated by nearly sixty percent Shi'a.
Iraq is not presently in a state of civil war. While there are parties who are hoping to fulminate one in order to preclude the establishment of a secular, pro-Western, democratic Iraq, the United States, its allies, and most Iraqis have a strong stake in preventing that eventuality. That the insurgents will be defeated, order established, and the Iraqis assisted in creating a workable democracy is hardly a given. Still, the Coalition is taking important steps in the right direction. The recent operations to retake Fallujah and Mosul, while certainly costly, have sent a signal to ordinary Iraqis that the terrorists are not going to be allowed free reign. The insistence on holding the elections as scheduled in January is vital to institutionalizing the rule of law.
Iraq's Interim Constitution, established March 8, can serve as a baseline for a future unified Iraq. It includes several measures recognizing the rights of minorities, including the recognition of the Kurdish language, along with Arabic, as an official language (Article 9) and the listing of several important "fundamental rights" (Chapter Two, Articles 10-23) that may not be taken away even by the act of the legislature. If the follow-on government that comes to power pursuant to the January 2005 elections maintains a similar model, civil war will be unnecessary.
James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. is Managing Editor of Strategic Insights, the journal of the Naval Postgraduate School. He writes about national security policy at the Outside the Beltway weblog. He is a frequent TCS contributor.