Civil war? What civil war?

Desperate to convince voters we're winning, Bush is denying that Iraq is having a civil war. But the facts contradict him.

Published March 23, 2006 11:52AM (EST)

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi shocked the Washington political establishment on the eve of the third anniversary of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq by declaring that the country is in the midst of a civil war. He observed, "We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is." Allawi, an ex-Baathist and longtime CIA asset whom Washington installed as interim prime minister, is anything but squeamish -- which is one of the reasons the Bush administration selected him in the first place. But Allawi's tough-guy stance is no longer welcome stateside. His remarks were greeted coldly by the White House and the Pentagon, which loudly proclaimed that Iraq is in the midst of no such thing.

In contrast, George W. Bush said at a news conference on Tuesday, "We all recognized that there is violence, that there is sectarian violence. But the way I look at the situation is the Iraqis looked and decided not to go into civil war."

There is no great secret about why Bush is so eager to deny that Iraq is in a state of civil war. He knows only too well that the moment Americans come to believe that Iraq is in a civil war, virtually all support for Bush's war of choice will end. As the Washington Post reported nine months ago, Bush's domestic political spin on the war is guided by the work of two Duke University political scientists, Peter D. Feaver and Christopher F. Gelpi, who have examined public opinion on Iraq and previous conflicts. They argue that the U.S. public will only support wars if it believes the mission will succeed. Public support for the Iraq war has faltered because the American people cannot see progress toward a well defined goal and toward success. If Iraq really has fallen into civil war, there is obviously little hope for victory, and Americans are not going to want to go on spending $60 billion a year on a failed enterprise.

To prevent this from happening, Bush has been giving speeches and answering public questions, attempting to spin Iraq as a budding success story that just needs a little more time (along with the unstated further half-trillion dollars, and a few thousand more dead Americans) to succeed. Beyond that, the Bush administration has tried to reassure Americans that if Iraq did slip into anarchy, the U.S. wouldn't get drawn in. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld startled and dismayed many Iraqis by announcing that if Iraq did fall into what he called civil war, Iraqi forces would have to deal with it, while American troops stayed on the sidelines. During the sectarian disturbances after the al-Askari shrine bombing in Samarra, many thought U.S. troops had orders to remain in their barracks, lest they be sucked into the communal violence.

Allawi, once the Bush administration's pet, is dangerously off message. He warned in a BBC interview that Iraq is rapidly moving toward "the point of no return," and subsequent dismemberment. He added, "It will not only fall apart but sectarianism will spread throughout the region, and even Europe and the U.S. will not be spared the violence that results." The image of Iraq as a sinking ship heading straight for a waterfall that will smash it and the whole Middle East to smithereens is the opposite of the hopeful rhetoric crafted by Bush to meet the Duke professors' specifications.

The real question for politicians like Allawi is not whether Iraq is in the midst of a civil war, but whether it is politically more useful to sound an alarm or to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Allawi, as a representative of the Shiite (and some Sunni) urban middle and upper middle classes in Baghdad and Basra, sees the old Iraq he knew as a young man slipping away. His National Iraqi list garnered only 9 percent of seats in parliament in the Dec. 15 elections, as he saw himself outmaneuvered by fundamentalists of various stripes, including Shiite ayatollahs and Sunni Arab clerics. He therefore wishes to signal that the status quo cannot hold, that sectarianism is the biggest danger, and that only his brand of secular Iraqi nationalism can hope to hold the country together. It is a plea for a minority government under his leadership, with the clear message that Iraq needs a strongman like himself to avoid chaos.

At some early point after the fall of Saddam, if the U.S. had done everything right instead of everything wrong, it is possible -- though by no means assured -- that a secular strongman like Allawi (in effect a cleaned-up Saddam) could have held the country together. Now, it is almost certainly too late. The sectarian genie has been let out of the bottle, and getting it back in is probably not possible.

That there should be a political controversy over whether there is a civil war in Iraq is a tribute to the Bush administration's Orwellian attention to political rhetoric. By the most widely accepted social science measure, Iraq is incontestably in a civil war.

J. David Singer and his collaborators at the University of Michigan (where I also teach) have studied dozens of such conflicts and have offered a thorough and widely adopted definition of civil war. It is:

"Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain." (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)

The definition focuses on three main dimensions of civil war: that it is fought within a country rather than between states; that it is fought between insurgent forces and the state; and that the insurgent forces offer effective resistance.

The Iraqi central government is pitted against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance. Some 50 distinct cells, spanning the political spectrum from secular Arab nationalists to religious fundamentalists, direct the activities of at least 20,000 to 30,000 part-time guerrillas, and perhaps many more. They strike regularly throughout seven key center-north provinces, including Baghdad, which at 6 million persons contains a fourth of the inhabitants of Iraq. In civil wars, the violence is staccato and almost random. Journalists or bloggers who visit Iraq and find bustling bazaars and brisk traffic are often fooled by their naiveté into thinking that the violence has been exaggerated. But it should be remembered that boys went swimming and fished not far from where the battle of Gettysburg was being fought in the U.S. Civil War. Guerrilla violence does not need to be omnipresent to effectively disrupt the society.

The government has no real sovereignty in the Sunni Arab regions. Urban areas such as Ramadi and Samarra are de facto city-states, ruled at night by the guerrilla movement; only in the day is there the fiction of control by Baghdad and the Marines. Likewise, heavily Sunni Arab portions of Diyala and Hilla provinces are a security no man's land. Even much of Baghdad is outside effective government or U.S. control, with provinces such as Dura and Adhamiya forming enclaves of what Sunni Arabs call "the Resistance."

It seems obvious that the provinces with substantial Sunni Arab populations in Iraq secretly owe allegiance to political forces other than the elected government in Baghdad. The neo-Baath former captains and majors, the Salafi revivalist clerics, the Arab nationalist youth, the tribal leaders, and the leaders of city quarters form a fractured mosaic of alternative political and military power.

The elected provincial officials cooperating with the Baghdad government are more fugitives and potential victims than effective leaders. In Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Diyala, governors, provincial council members, police chiefs and elected municipal leaders cooperating with the new order in Baghdad have been serially killed, seen family members kidnapped, and resigned in defeat, over and over again.

The dozens of bodies that often show up in the streets of the capital in the morning, with hands bound and a Mafia-style bullet behind the right ear, are evidence of nighttime raids by Shiite paramilitaries and counter-raids by Sunni Arab guerrillas that form part of the wider civil war. Communal violence has occasionally escalated, with urban mobs fighting in Kirkuk in January of 2004, or Shiite crowds roaming the streets of Baghdad looking for Sunni Arabs to kill and Sunni mosques to burn down in the aftermath of the Feb. 22, 2006, blowing up of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which is beloved to Shiites.

The battle for oil-rich Kirkuk among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen (who speak a language related to Turkish and are championed by nearby Ankara) is itself a sort of slow-motion civil war, with daily bombings and assassinations as the public manifestation of a larger underground struggle between Kurdish returnees and squatters and the others. The province has witnessed large-scale expulsions of Arab populations originally brought in as settlers by Saddam Hussein, as well as an influx of Kurdish squatters and settlers. A steady drumbeat of ethnic violence sounds in Kirkuk, with killings of Kurdish police by Arab and Turkmen guerrillas and vice versa. Kirkuk is not under Baghdad's control, and because of pipeline and other sabotage has been able to pump very little petroleum (it could hope to do 800,000 barrels a day on a good day, but manages on an average only a fourth of that).

The death toll from guerrilla activity and government ripostes, extrapolating from Allawi's estimate of 50 fatalities a day, is on the order of 18,000 a year, well above the 1,000 minimum suggested by Singer and his colleagues. There are no good estimates of the numbers or percentages of guerrillas killed vs. new Iraqi security forces, but if the police are included in the latter, anecdotal evidence suggests that the guerrillas inflict on government forces far more than 5 percent of the casualties they themselves sustain.

Singer and other social scientists working on the Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan find that civil wars are associated with low levels of economic development in postcolonial states, with what they call semi-democracy as opposed to full democracy, and with high levels of military spending. It is not clear, however, that once they have begun, such civil wars can be settled through small-scale political compromise.

To be sure, the civil war in Iraq could be more acute. Nonetheless, Iraq is in civil war, as social scientists define it. We have a good notion of how it fell into civil war, and the responsibility the U.S. bears for that outcome. What remains unknown is whether the Bush administration can do anything effective about it. The relative passivity of U.S. forces during the sectarian riots after the Golden Shrine was destroyed, and Rumsfeld's startling pledge that the U.S. military would stay out of civil war-type conflicts, do not inspire faith that it can.

Bush will continue to mouth his optimistic slogans -- he has no choice. But he is now at the mercy of events. A catastrophic, or even significant, downturn in Iraq may strip the last shreds of public support for Bush's ill-fated war, and send his presidency into a downward spiral from which, like the tragedy in Iraq, there may be no escape.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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