'Civil war' could be little more than semantics

Published March 19, 2006

CIVIL WAR - War between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation.

- Webster's New World Dictionary

Even before the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq - a place cobbled together by the British in 1920 - there were warnings the country could degenerate into civil war.

Three years on, the concern has turned to a question: Has the civil war actually started?

Despite the soaring death toll, there's little resemblance to the United States' own War Between the States, in which two distinct enemies squared off against each other.

"In Iraq, that's not what we find," says Marina Ottaway, an expert on civil society at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

More relevant comparisons, she says, are the recent civil wars in Somalia, Congo and other countries where no one was clearly in charge and the vacuum was filled by armed militias and other groups.

"Much more common and insidious in the contemporary world is a situation where central authority has disappeared and you have this kind of free for all," Ottaway says. "That is what we're seeing in Iraq, so yes, Iraq is in a state of civil war."

Another expert, Sir Hilary Synnott, agrees it is often hard to tell exactly who is fighting in Iraq, let alone exactly what they are fighting for.

Whether a true civil war is under way "is a question of semantics," says Synnott, the coalition's regional coordinator for southern Iraq after the 2003 invasion. "There's clearly a low-level civil war or a high level of insurgency."

Fears that Iraq is on the verge of civil war - or already in it - heightened Feb. 22 when bombers thought to be Sunni Muslims blew up the gold-domed Askari Mosque in Samarra, a shrine sacred to Shiites. That was followed by a wave of revenge killings that have claimed hundreds of lives.

Top U.S. officials say Iraq isn't yet in a civil war, though they disagree on how close it might be. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the 2003 invasion had opened a "Pandora's box" of tensions that could lead to a civil war that "would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged the possibility of civil war, but said the media had exaggerated the violence.

Many experts say Iraq's civil war actually started when the coalition invaded, disbanded Iraq's army and toppled Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, thereby destroying any central authority.

"It wasn't a particularly admirable central authority, but no other one was put in place," Ottaway says, adding that the current government, while more democratic, is essentially toothless.

"One of the basic characteristics of a state is that you have a monopoly on the use of force. In fact, this is a government that has very little force at its disposal. The national police force that Americans have tried to train we now discover is a bunch of militia controlled by various groups.

"The (Iraqi) military is slightly better because Americans are embedded in all units, but it's not clear to whom the soldiers belong" - many Kurdish troops still wear the insignia of the peshmerga, the Kurdish paramilitary.

Ottaway thinks the only solution for Iraq is abandoning the idea of a "national unity" government, as the Bush administration has insisted on, and recognizing that Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites have very different agendas. One model is Bosnia, where the Serbs - the most belligerent group - got their own republic within a republic after a 3-year civil war with Croats and Muslims that killed at least 200,000 people.

Likewise, "can we help (Iraqis) negotiate some sort of solution so at least they don't slaughter each other?" Ottaway asks.

Although there is growing clamor for the United States to withdraw its troops lest they be ensnared in an Iraqi civil war, it would be a mistake to pull out now, says Synnott, a veteran British diplomat.

"There is still a lot of work to be done in assisting Iraqis to look after their own security. It's very necessary to avoid having this current instability develop into a full-fledged, conventionally weaponed war. To avoid that there needs to be some assistance on the ground to prevent heavy weapons being acquired."

Synnott is cautiously optimistic that stability might yet be restored through the political process, despite the many delays in forming a government and seating a parliament.

"I certainly wouldn't be starry-eyed about that . . . but I wouldn't say that the delays necessarily mean the process is doomed," Synnott said. The United States should also make "every effort possible" to restore essential services and proceed with reconstruction as a way of winning Iraqi support.

As for civil war, it's a term that may distract attention from the basic problem.

The bottom line, Synnott says, "is that there's a whole lot of violence going on and it could get much worse."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com