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Is There Civil War in Iraq? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London-New York, Asharq Al Awsat – Speaking to the BBC, outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said that Iraq is witnessing a ‘civil war’, after stating last September that the country was “on the verge of a civil war”. In the BBC interview, Annan was evasive in his answers as the interviewer questioned him on four different occasions about the ‘civil war’ issue. His first response to the matter was an affirmative nod of the head, whereas the second time, he said, “The situation is very dangerous”. For the third answer, Annan stated, “Violence, murder, hatred and confrontation had increased.” By the fourth and final answer, he said, “A few years ago when we had conflict in Lebanon and other places, we called that a civil war. This is much worse.” Therefore, within three months, Annan’s opinion of the civil war in Iraq had shifted from “heading towards a civil war” to a state that is “much worse than civil war.” Nevertheless, at least Kofi Annan acknowledged the fact that what Iraq is enduring is indeed a civil war – unlike American President, George W. Bush. Annan’s statement comes at a time in which Bush, his secretaries of state and his aides still reject the idea that Iraq is “heading towards a civil war”.

During a recent press conference, White House Spokesman Tony Snow said, “There isn’t a civil war in Iraq because there are a lot of different forces, organizations and leaders, trying to put pressure on the government and attempting to undermine it. However, there is no unified organization as there is no clearly identifiable leader.” Thus, Snow had set certain conditions for the definition of a civil war. Moreover, in November, US Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel told the ‘New York Times’ newspaper that what is taking place in Iraq is not a civil war, a fact that top leaders and senior officials in Iraq had agreed upon. However, less than 10 months ago in the aftermath of the bombings in the two holy shrines in Samarra, Former Prime Minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi had said, “If this is not a civil war, then God knows what civil war is.”

A number of academic experts on the subject of war have disagreed with President Bush, his secretaries of state, aides and supporters. In an interview with the ‘New York Times’, Professor of political science at Stanford University and author of a number of books including ‘Hegemony and Culture’, David Laitin said, “Why do we discuss the term civil war when we reject violence? There are many academics studying civil wars, yet in all cases, violence is still violence.”

In a CBS television interview with Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University and co-author of the book, ‘Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis,’ Nicholas Sambanis said, “It is odd. This war should have been called a civil war many years ago. I do not know how any human being could deny this after all that has happened recently.” He added that political science professors at different universities have various understandings for the types of civil wars, however they do not differ on the definition of ‘civil war’ itself and that the situation in Iraq is not “only a civil war but rather the most severe case of civil war since World War II.”

In an interview with Asharq Al Awsat, professor of political science at Stanford University James Fearon said, “We do not need a university professor to define the term ‘civil war’. Any rational person would say that the current situation in Iraq – as it has been for quite some time – is one that conforms to the definition of civil war.” He stated that political scientists at universities agree upon the following definition: “Civil war is the state in which there is conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, one side’s separatist goals, or some divisive government policy.” But is there an agreed number of deaths to categorize violence as civil war? Fearon stated that political scientists classify civil wars according to the number of casualties and the scale of destruction into three sizes: He explained, “A small-scale civil war would be one in which up to 1,000 people have died as a result.” Fearon stated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people have died in Iraq since the invasion nearly four years ago. Historians have disagreed over where to draw the line between “civil war” and “revolution” as was the case in France when a civil war preceded the 1789 revolution after which it was succeeded by a larger and graver civil war. Historians have also disputed over the benefits and advantages of civil wars (from a historical viewpoint). For example, some have argued that the American Civil War vanquished the separatists and established a strong and unified state. Additionally, the English Civil War reduced the influence of an absolute monarchy and supported parliament.

Various historians have argued that what transpired in Britain as a series of wars could not be defined as a civil war per se, but rather as a ‘revolution’. Up until now, there exist debates in the US regarding the causes of its civil war which began in 1861 and lasted four years until the central government defeated the 11 southern confederate states. A minority of Americans believe that the war was constitutional as the central government had intervened in state affairs. Others, who form the majority, claim that the reason was related to the slave trade and that the war erupted after the confederate states refused to abolish slavery. Slavery and governmental racial segregation came to an end; however, the effects can still be witnessed today as southern states tend to hold Conservative Republican and Christian orientations. The American Civil War and the political debate that ensued are reflected nowadays through the American Forces’ and the Central Intelligence Authority’s (CIA) battle against ‘the enemy’ in Iraq and Afghanistan and the world over – but who precisely is this ‘enemy’? Is it the soldiers? Is it every civilian who engages in battle? Or is it every civilian who ideologically opposes the US? It is evident that the terms and classifications applied to the American civil war are subjective in accordance with the individual. In addition to disagreeing as to what actually constitutes ‘civil war’, Americans also dispute over the term ‘enemy’.

Dubbed a ‘civil war’ by Abraham Lincoln, the American president who abolished slavery during his term, it was a description that Ulysses Grant, the president who succeeded Lincoln, agreed upon. The majority of politicians, journalists and academics were also in agreement on the term. American soldiers (who were victorious in the war) called it the ‘War of the Rebellion’, alluding to the southern states that had rebelled against the central government. Conversely, the defeated southern states named the war as the ‘War Between States’ in order to assert two points: firstly, that southern states are not inferior to northern states and secondly, that the term ‘civil war’ portrays southern states as ‘rebels’. The Supreme Court had adopted a neutral approach when referring to the matter in a resolution issued in 1862, employing the phrase, “A civil war between northern and southern states.”

Last century, members of the Congress from the southern states put forward a resolution for Congress to name the war, a ‘War Between States’, however it was to no avail. Congress also refused to officially name it the ‘Civil War.’ It seems that even after 250 years, the Americans still fail to agree on an official name for the war. as demonstrated by the US Postal Service’s issuance of a memorial stamp that bore the words: ‘The Civil War / The War Between States’.

Dr. James Fearon told Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, “There is an entire section in political science that focuses on civil wars. There are experts, books and research on the definition of the term, its causes, developments and implications. It is for this reason that we do not understand the debate amongst politicians and journalists regarding what to label the civil war in Iraq.” He pointed out that the American government does not use the word ‘invasion’ for its military intervention in Iraq, or the term ‘occupation’ for its military presence in the country. Fearon stated that journalists have followed the same track as governments, however adding that recently there has been a change in stance in some of them. He stated that such action illustrates the error (and danger) of relying upon government or media interpretations of events and developments that should be left to historians and political scientists. “Let us agree that there is a civil war in Iraq, and then let us work towards ending it.” He added, “The security of the United States should not be a matter of competition between politicians or a scoop for reporters. US security should be studied through rational and scientific research.”

But do Iraqis agree that what they are enduring is civil war? The estimations of various Iraqi figures from different political parties, movements and orientations have varied concerning the events in Iraq today. Some had called it ‘signs of a civil war’ whereas others have referred to it as ‘disputes between armed groups’. Moreover, it is also considered ‘sectarian violence’ on one hand, and ‘an undeclared civil war’ on the other.

The first Iraqi politician to describe the situation in Iraq as a civil war was Iyad Allawi when he told Asharq Al Awsat, 20 March 2006 that, “civil war in Iraq is inevitable, the situation is deteriorating drastically and action needs to be taken quickly to save the situation.” He referred to the number of victims who are killed in Iraq on a daily basis (which at the time of the interview was approximately 50 per day). This is what led Allawi to say, “If this is not civil war, then God knows what a civil war is.”

Dr. Fouad Massoum, head of the Kurdish bloc in the Iraqi House of Representatives (Parliament), described what is happening today in Iraq as “signs of a civil war”. He noted that, “If political forces do not take control of the situation and deal with it swiftly and decisively, it will shift into a state of civil war.” Massoum told Asharq Al Awsat that the Kurdish leadership (The two main Kurdish parties: Kurdish Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani) are working hard so that these signs do not develop into a civil war that will destroy everything in its wake. Even though parts of Kurdistan are secure, the fires of civil war would burn us all.” Massoum continued, “What we can see are signs of a political conflict over power and some parties seek to attribute religious or sectarian elements to it “. He warned that in Iraq, “There is no hostility between Sunnis and Shia and there are many cases of intermarriages between members of the two communities. Moreover, there are old and significant tribes in which members are Sunni and Shia.”

Dr Adnan al Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi Accord Front in the House of Representatives, described what is happening in Iraq now as “a prelude to a sectarian war if not an undeclared sectarian war”. He added, “What is currently taking place in Iraq is a war between Shia and Sunnis and events are based on actions and reactions of the armed militias of both parties, meanwhile the citizen is the innocent victim of this war.” He pointed out that there is an organized campaign against Sunnis in Baghdad.

Researcher Iyad Jamaluddin, MP for the National Iraqi List chaired by Iyad Allawi, told Asharq Al Awsat, “If civil war means conflict between individuals, killing residents from certain areas and is based on religious identity, then what is happening in Iraq is not a civil war.” He asserted that Iraq is experiencing “infighting between armed militias that are affiliated to political movements or particular sects. This means that there is a political decision to mobilize these militias fully knowing that everybody insists that these militias do not represent the sects or doctrines to which they are affiliated. As such, it is a dispute or conflict between armed insurgent groups and this conflict cannot be defined as civil war.”

Jamaluddin elaborated, “In today’s Iraq, there may be signs of a civil war, especially that some of these conflicting armed groups belong to the Shia sect whereas others belong to the Sunni sect. However, it is certainly not a conflict between Sunnis and Shia, as there are influential figures from both parties who reject this fighting and this conflict, and believe in the political process.”

In turn, Dr. Mohammed Bashar al Faidi, member of the Association of Muslim Scholars headed by Sheikh Harith al Dari summarized what is happening in Iraq as “sectarian violence.” Al Faidi said, “Sectarian violence is practiced by armed militias in order to stay in power or for the benefit of a foreign agenda.” He pointed out that “the community is being exploited to achieve personal interests”. Al Faidi stressed the importance attached to “not attributing this violence to the Shia community but rather to Shia political circles and militias.” He highlighted “the circumstances of Shia members of society are the same as the circumstances of Sunni members of society who are helpless and have nothing to do with this violence.”

Whilst the majority of Iraqis refuse to say that Iraq is going through a civil war, many Americans similarly agree. A number of Republicans from US Congress deny the fact that there is a state of civil war in Iraq. For example, US Congressman Peter Hoekstra who represents the second congressional state of Michigan and is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said, “Civil war is a comprehensive war in the region. However four-fifths of Iraq is calm and stable. There are clashes in areas where both Sunnis and Shia reside however these do not represent Iraq as a whole.” Hoekstra’s position as chairman of House Intelligence Committee will be replaced by a democratic representative early next year.

Democratic Senator for the second congressional state of Virginia, James Webb, who was successful in November’s elections, was one of the first to oppose military intervention in Iraq and was the first to announce (when he began his election campaign last summer) that the conflict between the Sunnis and Shia constituted a civil war. He added, “I said we should not go to Iraq, but President Bush chose to. Not only do I say that there is a civil war in Iraq, but also that our presence there has been a major cause of it. However, President Bush does not say so because he is currently in a state of denial.”

Civil War Through History

Julius Caesar wrote three books on the Roman Civil War after expanding the Roman Republic into what became the Roman Empire. He defeated the French through an alliance with Pompey the Great, his closest ally, however, Caesar later turned against him as well as the Senate (the first ‘parliament’ in history), taking control of power and declaring war on them. The civil war lasted 13 years, both Caesar and Pompey falling victims, and before the former finished writing his book.

Marcus Annaeus Lucan, the Roman poet wrote a poem entitled, Pharsalia (Bellum Civile) in which he recounts the story of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey.

The following is an extract from Book 1, The Crossing of the Rubicon:

Wars worse than civil on Emathian plains,

And crime let loose we sing; how Rome’s high race

Plunged in her vitals her victorious sword

A Selection of History’s Most Significant Civil Wars

Han War (2nd Century B.C.): The Han tribes had expanded in China but were obstructed by a civil war known as ‘The Yellow Turban Rebellion’.

The Brothers’ War (11th Century): For control over Spain, a war was launched between the King of Leon, King Alfonso, and his brother King of Castile, King Sancho II.

Wars of Three Kingdoms (17th Century): A number of conflicts had taken place between England, Ireland, and Scotland. The war lasted for 10 years and paved the way for the secession of Ireland.

Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): The combatants of war were the Republicans (Liberals) on one hand, and the Nationalists (Right-wing) on the other, the latter of whom won the war under the leadership of General Franco. Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was based on real events during the Spanish Civil War.

Afghanistan: The war started in 1989 following the withdrawal of Soviet forces. The Taliban took control in 1996 until American forces and NATO invaded the country in 2001.

Algeria: The Algerian Civil War began in 1991 between the government and the armed Islamists after the military forces called off the results of the elections that demonstrated victory for the Islamists.

Angola: The war started in 1974 shortly after the country’s independence, and continued in more than one form between the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Certain groups were assisted by American intelligence on one hand, and Cuban troops on the other.

Cambodia: The war started in 1975 after the Vietnam War ended. The Communist regime had transformed its country into ‘Killing Fields’, a name that was adopted for what became an award-winning British film based on the experiences of a journalist throughout the war.

Rwanda: The war began in 1990 responsible for causing over half a million people’s death in a political and tribal conflict between the minority ruling Tutsis and the Hutu majority.

Somalia: The war started in 1991 and continues to this day. It had recently shifted into a war between Islamists who are supported by Eritrea and other countries, and warlords backed by Ethiopia and other countries.

Lebanon: The Lebanese Civil War started in 1975 and lasted for 15 years. It was rather a continuation of a confrontation that was spurred 20 years prior when the American Marines arrived in Lebanon to defend the government.

Sudan: The war started in 1955 between the south and north and officially ended in January 2005 when the two parties signed a peace agreement after the intervention of the United Nations that sent troops to the country to ensure that the agreement would be implemented. However, even the UN does not use the term ‘civil war’ to describe the current clashes in Darfur.