Over the past four years, the claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war or heading towards it has been a staple of the political debate in Washington.
The first to make the claim was Howard Dean, now Chairman of the Democrat Party, in 2003 as he tried to run for president. Since then, the phrase “Iraq is in a civil war” has become a cliché used by those who wish to appear knowledgeable about the situation. It has also become a mantra for those who believe the Arabs in general and the Iraqis in particular are genetically incapable of living without sanguinary despots.
The latest claim comes from the Brookings Institution, a prestigious Washington think-tank. In a new study, it warns that Iraq is sliding towards civil war.
The more cautious American commentators refrain from talking of civil war in Iraq. They prefer the term “sectarian war”, but end up drawing the same conclusions: Iraqis are a bad lot, better left to stew in their own juice of fanaticism and violence.
The truth, however, is that, although there is a great deal of killing in Iraq, there is no civil war in any sense of the term.
Even the claim that Iraq is experiencing a sectarian war is hard to sustain. Once again, there is much killing prompted by sectarian hatreds. However, what we have in Iraq today is a war of the sectarians, not a sectarian war.
The difference is not a matter of semantics.
In a sectarian war, the overwhelming majorities of rival religious sects subscribe to the aims of the struggle and actively participate in achieving them. I saw this in the former Yugoslavia when I covered its various wars in the 1990s. You could be sure that almost all Serbs, from the taxi driver that took you from the airport to the hotel to the nation’s leading poet, would be a sectarian, hating the Croats and the Muslims with uncontrollable passion. The inverse was also true. Most Croats and Muslims, while hating each other, also dreamed of crushing the Serbs as a nation. Peasants, factory workers, the urban poor, bishops and muftis, artists and filmmakers, ballet dancers and chefs were all sectarian.
Nothing of the sort exists in Iraq today. The deadly disease of sectarianism has, not contaminated the overwhelming majority of Iraqis, regardless of religious affiliations. Both Shiites and Sunnis are organized more based on political affiliations than sectarian loyalties.
Politically, Iyad Allawi has little in common with Muqtada Sadr. And, to bracket Adel Abdul-Mahdi with Dhia Abdul-Zahra, leader of the Army of the Heaven gang in Najaf, would be stupid and unfair. On the Sunni side, people forget that and Jalal Talabani is as much of a Sunni as Salih al-Mutlaq or Adnan Pachachi. But it would be an error of analysis to put them all together in the same political category. Needless to say, none of them could be bracketed with either the remnants of the Saddamite clan or Al Qaeda, on the basis of sectarian affiliation.
The government in place in Baghdad today is a coalition of many different parties and groups: Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish. True, some members of this government act as sectarians. But even then, their sectarianism comes in the form of nepotism and clientelism, designed to favor their families and clans, rather than religious considerations.
Unlike ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Iraq today has not been contaminated by sectarianism at the grass-root level. Iraqi grandmothers do not devote special prayers to ask God to destroy the rival sect. Iraqi poets do not write sectarian poetry. Iraqi artist do not portray members of other sects as devils incarnate. Not one of the gangsters who destroyed the golden domed shrine in Samarra was Iraqi.
Anyone familiar with the situation on the ground, rather than making judgments form thousands of miles away, would know of countless cases in which Sunnis and Shiites protected one another and saved each other from the violence of sectarian terrorist groups. In the province of Anbar, where Arab Sunnis account for more than 95 per cent of the population, several Shiite pockets owe their survival to the protection of local tribes. In some cases, the Sunni tribes have fought Al Qaeda terrorists to prevent the massacre of the Shiites.
People also forget that many Iraqi tribes include both Sunni and Shiite members. There are also tens of thousands of mixed families of Sunnis and Shiites, especially in Baghdad and Basra.
In many cases, the fight is between rival militias belonging to the same religious sect. On the Shiite side Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi (Mahdi’s Army), a hodgepodge of armed groups many of them controlled by Iran, has clashed with the Badr Brigade, another militia partly under Iranian control, and led by Abdul-Aziz Hakim.
Earlier this week, hundreds of militiamen were killed by Iraqi and US troops in a battle near Najaf. Most of those killed were Shiite followers of a charlatan who claimed to be the Last Imam. But those killed or captured also included many Sunni terrorists, including several from Sudan and Algeria.
There is no doubt that many Iraqis, perhaps more than a million, have been displaced as a result of sectarian violence. There have also been instances of ethnic cleansing, through the forcible expulsion of families and whole clans. But even such cases cannot be imputed to religious sectarianism. In some places, such as Basra and Baghdad, Arab Sunni families have been forced out of their homes by Shiite death-squads. But in almost all those cases, the death-squads in question belong to a single group: the Sadrists who wish to portray themselves as the most effective defenders of Shiism against a mythical Sunni threat. Elsewhere as in Kirkuk, where Kurds are forcing out both Shiite and Sunni Arabs, the motives are not religious but ethnic chauvinism. Also in Kirkuk, the Turkmen, both Sunnis and Shiites, act together on the basis not of religious affiliations but of ethnic origins.
There is no doubt that there is a war in Iraq. It is important to know what kind of a war this is.
If it is a civil war, we should identify the two rival sides and decided which side we ought to support right down to victory.
If it is a sectarian war, the only way to end it is either by geographical separation, as was the case with Croatia and Serbia, or through massive foreign occupation, as is the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina. (There are over 50,000 NATO troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than a decade after Western powers intervened to end the sectarian war. Iraq is nine times larger than Bosnia-Herzegovina but hosts only 150,000 foreign troops.)
What is happening in Iraq, however, is neither a civil nor a sectarian war, although elements of both exist within a broader context.
The war in Iraq is a political one between those who wish the new Iraq to succeed and those who want to ensure its failure. Those who want new Iraq to succeed represent the overwhelming majority of Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Those who want it to fail are made up of Saddamite bitter-enders, some misguided pan-Arab nationalists, death-squads financed by Tehran, and a variety of non-Iraqi terrorist outfits who have come to Iraq to kill and die in the name of their perverted vision of Islam. The war in Iraq is part of the broader war against terrorism and its many dark forces.