Iraq: Civil War at Last?

23 February 2006

Iraq: Civil War at Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

“We must cooperate and work together against this danger…of civil war,” said Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, but others think that the civil war has already arrived. At least 130 people, almost all of them Sunnis, were murdered in reprisal killings, and over a hundred Sunni mosques attacked, in the 24 hours after the destruction of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, sacred to the Shias, on 22 February. But it is not yet time to say that Iraq has slid irrevocably into civil war.

The casualties of the sectarian violence in Iraq are already comparable to those in the Lebanese civil war — a couple of dozen killed on slow days, a hundred or so on the worst days — but Iraq has about eight times as many people as Lebanon, so there is still some distance to go. And Iraq may never go the full distance, because it is hard to hold a proper civil war unless the different ethnic or religious groups hold separate territories.

The Kurds do, of course, and it is unlikely that the fighting will ever spread to the north of what now is Iraq, for Kurdistan is already effectively a separate country with its own army. The Kurds are currently allied with the Shia Arab religious parties of southern Iraq who control politics in the Arabic-speaking eighty percent of Iraq, but even if that alliance broke the Shias could not take back the north. The worst that might happen is ethnic cleansing around Kirkuk and its oilfields, where Saddam Hussein encouraged Arab settlement to erode Kurdish dominance of the area.

Southern Iraq is already controlled by the militias of the Shia religious parties, and has only a small minority of Sunnis. Baghdad and the “Sunni Triangle” in central Iraq are the only potential battlegrounds of an Iraqi civil war, but even there it is hard to have a real civil war, because only one side has an army.

The old, predominantly Sunni Arab army of Iraq was disbanded by proconsul Paul Bremer soon after the American occupation of Iraq. The new army and police force being trained by the US forces are almost entirely Shia (except in Kurdistan, where they are entirely Kurdish). Indeed, many of Iraq’s soldiers are members of existing Shia and Kurdish militias who have been shifted onto the payroll of the state.

So how can you have a civil war? All the Sunnis are capable of at the moment is guerilla attacks and terrorism. Unless really substantial aid and reinforcements come in from other Arab countries, they are unlikely to be able to move beyond that. They can kill some American soldiers (they are currently accounting for about a thousand a year), and they can play a tit-for-tat game of kidnapping and murder with the Shia militias and the Interior Ministry’s death squads, but they cannot really challenge Shia control of Arab Iraq.

Three years after the American invasion of Iraq, it’s possible to discern many of the final results of this “war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab world,” as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called it just before the invasion began. It is a study in unintended consequences, and a good argument for the rule that ideological crusaders must listen to the experts even though they know that their hearts are pure. Those consequences will include: The emergence of an independent Kurdish state in what used to be northern Iraq.

The destruction of the old, secular Iraq, and the installation of a thinly disguised Shia theocracy in the Arabic-speaking parts of the country.

A perpetual, low-grade insurgency by the Sunni Arab minority against the Shia state, but no change in their current desperate circumstances unless neighbouring Arab states become involved.

The destruction of the secular middle class in Arab Iraq. Most of these people are abandoning the country as fast as they can, for they know that all the future holds is Iranian-style social rules plus an unending Sunni insurgency..

The extension of Iran’s power and influence to the borders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The United States has handed Iraq to Iran on a plate.

American troops will remain in Iraq for several years, probably right down to the November, 2008 election, because it is impossible for the Bush administration to pull out without admitting a ghastly blunder. Too many people have died for “sorry” to suffice.

US troops stayed in Vietnam for five years after Richard Nixon was first elected in1968 on a promise to find an “honourable” way out, while Henry Kissinger searched for a formula that would separate US withdrawal from total defeat for its Vietnamese clients by a “decent interval” of a couple of years. Two-thirds of all US casualties in Vietnam occurred during that period. We are probably going to go through that charade again, but it won’t change any of the outcomes.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6 (“So how…Arab Iraq”).