Is Iraq in a state of civil war?
My notes show that, since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003m the question has risen once every two months. Having made the cover of almost every major news magazine, it has also been the theme of countless television and radio programmes in Europe and the United States.
The answer, however, is the same firm “no” that it was when it was when BBC television just devoted a programme to it just weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Nevertheless, it is important to review some of the reasons behind our firm “no”.
The question was given a new air of authenticity earlier this month when, in a BBC interview, Iraq ’s former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi implied that his country was already in civil war.
Allawi is one of the most capable members of the new Iraqi leadership elite, and can claim credit for having led his nation through a critical transition. But the fact is that he did not win enough votes in the last general election to claim the premiership, and thus may have been motivated by sour grapes, a very human reaction.
In understanding any political situation it is important to get the terminology right. Whether or not Iraq is in civil war, affects not only our analysis of the situation but also the policies needed for coping with it.
The term civil war was first popularised by the great orator and politician of ancient Rome Cicero to designate major armed conflicts within the republic.
The chief feature of such conflicts was that it pitted one group of Roman citizens against another, with no armed intervention by foreign powers.
More than five centuries earlier, Thucydides had seen the Peloponnesian war as an armed conflict between two sections of the same Hellenic community but had not regarded it as a civil war because it was fought under the banner of belligerent states and not between rival groups of citizens within the same state.
Although Roman history is replete with wars within the borders of the republic, and later, the empire, the term civil war is used to describe only a few.
The first Roman civil war was fought between Lucius Corenlius Sulla and Gaius Marius in 88-87 BC. Sulla lost but returned to fight, and win, another war against his rival in 82-83. But it was Julius Caesar’s war against the Optimates (conservative republicans) under Pompey in 49-45 BC that came to be known as the archetypical civil war and the model for subsequent conflicts of the same nature.
Rome was not the only major power of the ancient world to experience civil wars.
Persia, too, was shaken by several civil wars, starting with the one fought between Darius and The Magi who masqueraded as Bardiya the son of Cyrus the Great in 521 BC. But, perhaps, the most famous of Persian civil wars was fought between Khosrow Parviz and his ambitious former army commander Bahram Chubin in 590 AD.
So the first feature of civil war is that it must be fought between two rival camps of citizens of the same state.
A second feature is that the rival camps must be of roughly the same size and strength at the start of the conflict. If they are not, the conflict would best be described as a revolt by a minority against the majority and not as a civil war. (Roman history is full of such revolts, most notably the slaves’ uprising led by Spartacus and crushed by Crassus.)
The third feature of civil war is that it must be fought on political , not religious and/or ethnic grounds, pitting one secular vision of society against another. Wars fought on the basis of religion and/or ethnic identity, represent separate categories.
The fourth feature is that the conflict must be over the control of the whole disputed state and not aimed at splitting it into smaller units. Thus secessionist campaigns cannot be described as civil war. Civil war splits society at all levels, causing conflict even within families, and pitting brother against brother.
Finally, there should be no direct foreign intervention on one side or another, although in most civil wars rival foreign powers support the side they believe is closest to their interests.
The strict application of these rules would mean that many armed conflicts labelled as “civil war” would bes be placed in other categories.
The conflict that pitted the north against the south in the United States (1861-65) is often labelled “the American Civil War.” But it could be argued that it was a secessionist rebellion rather than a civil war. In fact, it is known in French as la guerre de secession (war of secession).The southern states had no desire to impose their model on the north, but fought to create their separate country.
Fast forward to recent history, few armed conflicts could be labelled “civil war” under the rules spelled out. The “Red” and “White” conflict of 1918-21 in Russia was one, because it met all the five conditions of a civil war. The same is true of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), and the armed conflict that pitted the Communist Party against the Kuomintang in China between 1945 and 1949.
By contrast one cannot describe the decade-long armed conflict in Algeria (1992-2002) as civil war. There, although two mutually exclusive visions clashed, the rival camps were not of roughly the same size, and the use of religion as the backbone of the anti-state revolt undermined its political credentials. More importantly, the anti-state forces did not succeed in coming up with a unified message let alone a unified leadership.
The 1994 armed conflict in Yemen is also labelled “Civil War”, but was, in fact, a secessionist revolt by the south against the north.
The conflict in Lebanon (1975-91) could be seen as a civil war because, although different ethnic and religious communities clashed on different sides, it was essentially fought on political grounds. There were also two camps: the pan-Arabs and the little-Lebanbonists.
The many armed conflicts in Black Africa, notably in Nigeria (the Biafran revolt against the Fulani in the 1960s), the Sudan (the Christian south against the Muslim north), and the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in the 1990s, should also be seen as ethnic, religious and/or secessionist wars rather than civil wars.
So, let us return to Iraq .
Iraq is currently the scene of four parallel and at times overlapping conflicts.
The first is between the forces of old Iraq , principally the remnants of the Ba’ath regime, and those of the new emerging Iraq .
The second is between Iraqis of different backgrounds and ideologies against the coalition forces led by the United Sates.
The third is between non-Iraqi Jihadists against both the US-led coalition and the forces of new Iraq .
The fourth is a sectarian feud between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shi’ites in which non-Iraqi Jihadists often intervene on the side of the former.
For Iraq to experience a civil war it is necessary for those four conflicts to be summed up in a single one fought by two rival camps of more or less equal strength at the start, consisting of Iraqi citizens divided not by ethnic and/or sectarian differences but by mutually exclusive political visions for the nation. And that certainly is not the case now.
Dr. Allawi is wrong: Iraq is not in a civil war, and, while the danger of one breaking out in the future cannot be discarded, the prospect of such an event remains remote.