Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Center for International Security and Cooperation Stanford University


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March 30, 2006 - In the News

Though the Bush administration doesn't agree, several experts contend the recent surge in bloodshed triggered by sectarian violence has pushed Iraq over the brink to civil war. Nearing the third anniversary the Iraq war's start, the San Francisco Chronicle asked CISAC's James Fearon and other experts to comment on the nature of the conflict.

Civil war a reality, experts say

Appeared in San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 2006

By Anna Badkhen

Heavily armed private militias routinely clash; suicide bombers kill civilians every day; each side sets fire to the other's mosques, expel families from their homes, and slaughter each other; and the central government seems powerless to stop the violence.

The latest upsurge in Iraqi bloodshed, the conventional wisdom goes, has pushed the country to "the brink" of civil war. Testifying before Congress on Thursday, Gen. John Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said as much when he stated that "sectarian violence is a greater concern for us security-wise right now than the insurgency."

But to many analysts, Iraq is already immersed in a civil war. Some point to the hypothetical definition of a civil war recently offered by National Director of Intelligence John Negroponte as "a complete loss of central government security control, the disintegration or deterioration of the security forces of the country."

"In academic terms, this is a civil war, and it's not even a small one," said Larry Diamond, a former consultant to the provisional authority in Baghdad who is now critical of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq.

"I don't know how else you would describe something which has people from one community systematically attacking the other," said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the civil war in the Balkans during the Clinton administration and who helped negotiate an end to the conflict in Croatia. "Sunni Arab insurgents have been attacking Shiite clergy, politicians and ordinary Shiites for simply being who they are ... and then you have a response, from the Shiites."

The implications of what to call the violence reach beyond semantics, say analysts who believe civil war is already a reality. Until the United States faces up to the true situation on the ground, it cannot take the necessary steps that might help mitigate the deteriorating situation.

"The flaw that we've had in Iraq from day one is that we've been ostrichlike with our dealings in our reality on the ground in the country," said Galbraith, who now is a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington. "At each stage of the process, the administration has been in denial about what's going on."

Publicly, at least, the Bush administration disagrees with the bleak assessments.

"There are some people trying to, obviously, foment sectarian violence -- some have called it civil war -- but it didn't work," President Bush said Saturday, expressing confidence that U.S. policy and Iraqi security forces will quash the current wave of violence. "I know we're going to succeed if we don't lose our will."

While the Iraqi government count is much lower, some reports have suggested as many as 1,300 Iraqis have died in the upsurge of bloodshed since bombers destroyed the gilded dome of the Shiite Askariya shrine in the north-central town of Samarra on Feb. 22. The attack on the mosque and the unbridled Sunni-Shiite violence that followed have delayed efforts to form a government in which Shiites, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds would share power.

Indicators that Iraq was descending into civil war appeared soon after the United States invaded in March 2003. In northern Iraq, on the first day after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Kurdish peshmerga fighters -- repressed, slaughtered and displaced by Hussein -- started a bloody retaliation campaign against Arabs and Turkomans, many of whom had moved into historically Kurdish areas.

In southern Iraq, Shiite militias loyal to different political groups and clerics have long been battling each other.

In central, western and north-central Iraq, a Sunni-driven insurgency killed and terrorized not just coalition troops but also Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis who "collaborated" with American troops or the U.S.-backed Iraqi forces.

Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed since the fall of Hussein's regime run as high as 75,000. Iraqi government officials have said at least two-thirds of the victims are civilian casualties of violence inflicted by Iraqi militants.

But after the U.S.-backed provisional authority passed the reins of power to a temporary government dominated by a coalition of Shiite religious parties in January 2005, the violence became reciprocal.

Human rights organizations, such as the London-based Amnesty International, have reported an increasing campaign against Sunnis by Shiite death squads operating in Baghdad and in south-central Iraq under the auspices of the Interior Ministry, which controls Iraqi police, and which is run by a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite religious party with ties to Iran.

The State Department's annual global human rights review, released Wednesday, said that in Iraq, "reports increased of killings by the government or its agents that may have been politically motivated."

The Iraqi government has consistently denied the allegations, but in November, U.S. forces liberated 169 mostly Sunni prisoners from a secret Baghdad prison, saying the prisoners had been tortured by their captors.

U.S. authorities may have inadvertently contributed to the rise of the militias by encouraging the Iraqi forces, infiltrated

by private armies with sectarian loyalties, to take security responsibilities in much of the country.

Washington has "been pretending that it's been building up an Iraqi army and Iraqi police, when in fact what it's been doing was building a purely sectarian Shiite-dominated police and an army that is also largely sectarian or ethnic," Galbraith said. "While we think it's the Iraqi army coming to fight the insurgents, the Sunnis see not their fellow nationals, they see the enemy, they see the Shiites, from a hostile religious group."

Although they dispute the civil war scenario, administration officials have expressed concern about the possible fallout. A descent into such chaos "would have implications for the rest of the Middle East region and, indeed, the world," Negroponte said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 28. He also said it would present a "serious setback" to the U.S. war on terror.

But while some military and civilian policymakers acknowledge that civil war is a possibility, they appear to have little idea what to do about it.

"The plan is to prevent a civil war, and to the extent one were to occur, to have the -- from a security standpoint -- have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday while testifying in support of the administration's request for $91 billion in funds mainly to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But many analysts discount Rumsfeld's reliance on Iraq's 230,000 nascent security forces -- whose allegiance often lies with different sectarian militias and who frequently become targets of the violence themselves. In a grim reminder of how powerless Iraqi authorities are against the rampant violence, on Monday a Baghdad sniper gunned down an Iraqi army major general whose division is in charge of security in the capital.

The police are often controlled or strongly influenced by imams or political leaders, which makes them essentially militias," said Kalev Sepp, a defense-analysis professor at the Monterey Naval Postgraduate School.

"The extra-governmental groups often kill for revenge and criminal gain and political advantage, begetting the same response. Government security forces, absent oversight, may do the same," said Sepp, a former Army Special Forces officer who travels to Iraq frequently and who has testified before Congress on the training of Iraqi units. "It's not infeasible for one of these bands to shoot their way into power."

Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, said that to help restore order, the United States should "defer any significant reduction in ground troops and double our efforts to get a broad-based coalition government" and to reorganize "police and security forces to root out militia penetration."

At the same time, he said, the Bush administration should increase its effort to persuade Iraq's neighbors to help stop the violence.

"It would involve bringing in a higher-level U.N. mediator, working with the European Union, leaning on Iran to act with greater restraint," Diamond said.

James Fearon, a Stanford University professor who has written extensively on modern civil wars, said accepting the true scope of the conflict in Iraq would influence "the urgency with which -- and possibly the manner in which -- our diplomats ... help bring about a political deal" to create a power-sharing government that would go some ways to pacifying the warring parties.

Militarily, Fearon said, "I don't think there is a lot we can do, short of troop increase."

But Galbraith is more pessimistic.

"We're not going to stop the civil war, we're not going to stop the Iranian takeover of much of the country," he said. "That would require five times more troops."

Indeed, any solution involving American troops may face problems at home.

"If, despite our best efforts, a genocidal civil war erupts, I don't think there's any support on the (Capitol) Hill for us to be trapped in a cross fire," said John Pike, who heads the Washington-based defense think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

Pike, who said it is too early to call the bloodshed in Iraq a civil war, said that if violence were to escalate further, "there might be some support for the proposition that we should withdraw to Kurdistan and stand with them."

In an Associated Press-Ipsos poll released Friday, 80 percent of respondents said Iraq was headed for a civil war. An ABC-Washington Post poll last week found 52 percent believe the United States should begin withdrawing its troops.

"The only reason the administration is so reluctant to use the term (civil war)," Galbraith said, "is that it would be such an admission of a failure."




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