"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

What Makes A Civil War and Who Declares It?
NY Times
November 26, 2006

Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not, a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war.

The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.

American professors who specialize in the study of civil wars say that most of their number are in agreement that Iraq's conflict is a civil war.

"I think that at this time, and for some time now, the level of violence in Iraq meets the definition of civil war that any reasonable person would have," said James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford.

While the term is broad enough to include many kinds of conflicts, one of the sides in a civil war is almost always a sovereign government. So some scholars now say civil war began when the Americans transferred sovereignty to an appointed Iraqi government in June 2004. That officially transformed the anti-American war into one of insurgent groups seeking to regain power for disenfranchised Sunni Arabs against an Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and increasingly dominated by Shiites.

Others say the civil war began this year, after the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra set off a chain of revenge killings that left hundreds dead over five days and has yet to end. Mr. Allawi proclaimed a month after that bombing that Iraq was mired in a civil war. "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is," he said.

Many insurgencies and ethnic or sectarian wars are also civil wars. Vietnam and Lebanon are examples. Scholars say the Iraq civil war has elements of both an insurgency — one side is struggling to topple what it sees as an illegitimate national government — and a sectarian war — the besieged government is ruled by Shiites and opposed by Sunni Arabs.

In Iraq, sectarian purges and Sunni-Shiite revenge killings have become a hallmark of the fighting, but the cycles of violence are ignited by militia leaders who have political goals. The former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosovic, did this during the wars in the Balkans.

The civil strife in Iraq largely takes place in mixed Sunni-Shiite areas that include the cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Baquba. In Anbar Province, which is overwhelming Sunni Arab, much of the violence is aimed at American troops. Large swaths of Iraq have little violence, but those areas are relatively homogenous and have few people.

Governments and people embroiled in a civil war often do not want to label it as such. In Colombia, officials insisted for years that the rebels there were merely bandits.

Some Bush administration officials have argued that there is no obvious political vision on the part of the Sunni-led insurgent groups, so "civil war" does not apply.

In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days — beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people — reinforces their assertion.

Mr. Fearon and a colleague at Stanford, David D. Laitin, say the deaths per year in Iraq, with at least 50,000 reportedly killed since March 2003, place this conflict on par with wars in Burundi and Bosnia.

Iraq's president and prime minister avoid using the term, but many Iraqis say extremists have thrust the country into civil war, even as moderates have struggled to pull back from the brink.

"You need to let the world know there's a civil war here in Iraq," said Adel Ibrahim, 44, a sheik in the Subiah tribe, which is mostly Shiite. "It's a crushing civil war. Mortars kill children in our neighborhoods. We're afraid to travel anywhere because we'll be killed in buses. We don't know who is our enemy and who is our friend."

 The spiraling bloodshed here bolsters arguments that this is a civil war. A United Nations report released Wednesday said at least 3,709 Iraqis were killed in October, the highest of any month since the American-led invasion. More than 100,000 Iraqis a month are fleeing to Syria and Jordan.

"It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war," said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited "Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis," published by the World Bank in 2005. "The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945."

Among scholars, "there's a consensus," Mr. Sambanis said. Scholars in the United States generally agree that there have been at least 100 civil wars since 1945. At the smaller end of the scale is the war in Northern Ireland. Measured by total killed, the largest modern civil wars were in Angola, Afghanistan, Nigeria, China and Rwanda.

However, there are some dissenting historians on the definition of civil war, and whether it applies to Iraq. John Keegan, the British writer of war histories, finds only five clear-cut cases, starting with the English civil war of the 17th century through to the Lebanese war of the 20th century. His criteria are that the feuding groups must be vying for national authority, have leaders who publicly announce what they are fighting for and clash in set-piece battles while wearing uniforms, among other things. He argues in the December issue of Prospect magazine that Iraq is therefore not in civil war.

On Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, insisted that the Iraq conflict was not civil war, noting that Iraq's top leaders had agreed with that assessment. Last month, Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for President Bush, acknowledged that there were many groups trying to undermine the government, but said that there was no civil war because "it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader."

By contrast, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Fox News in September that "a political solution is necessary to end the civil war in Iraq."

In 2003, at the start of the Sunni-led insurgency, Bush administration officials called the guerrillas "dead-enders" and insisted their only goal was to sow chaos. Now, American commanders acknowledge that political dominance is at the heart of this conflict.

In Congressional testimony this month, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples of the Defense Intelligence Agency characterized the situation as an "ongoing, violent struggle for power" and said the country was moving closer to a "significant breakdown of central authority."

Many Iraqis and Americans who have tracked the insurgency say it has been strongly shaped by former Baath Party members who want to keep Shiites from taking power. Even the newer jihadist groups have articulated political goals on Web sites — most notably to establish a Sunni-ruled Islamic caliphate.

"There was a whole regime that ruled this country for 35 years," said Mahmoud Othman, a senior Kurdish legislator. "Now they've gone underground. This is the main body of the resistance."

Scholars say it is crucial that policy makers and news media organizations recognize the Iraq conflict as a civil war.

"Why should we care how it is defined, if we all agree that the violence is unacceptable?" asked Mr. Laitin, the Stanford professor. "Here is my answer: There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation's security."

Reporting was contributed by Qais Mizher from Baghdad, and by Mark Mazzetti, Jim Rutenberg and Kate Zernike from Washington.

Original Text