Iraq: civil war or no civil war?

Anwar Rizvi
9 April 2006

The question of whether the violence wracking Iraq constitutes a civil war has been an increasing theme of public discussion since the bombing on 22 February 2006 of one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines, the al-Askari mosque in Samarra. It was brought onto the centre of the political agenda by Iraq's former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who during a visit to Britain said on 19 March: "We are losing each day, as an average, fifty to sixty people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is".

Allawi's comment was dismissed by the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, as well as by politicians from among the United States-led coalition that invaded Iraq, such as British foreign secretary Jack Straw. But the intensity of the sectarian strife that followed the Samarra attack – with more than 400 people killed in the next three weeks, including many Sunni or Shi'a gruesomely mutilated and slaughtered by their opposite numbers – has guaranteed that Allawi's question will not go away.

On the weekend of 7-9 April, it returned with a vengeance, for two reasons. First, a further spate of assaults on Shi'a mosques, in which dozens of worshippers were killed. Second, the comments in an interview of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, who (in addition to casting doubt on the loyalty of Iraq Shi'a to the country) said that "civil war has almost started among Shi'a, Sunni, Kurds and those who are coming (to Iraq) from Asia".

Once more, the bleak assessment was more or less instantly rebutted by Iraqi and western leaders. But the timing of their response was unfortunate: on 10 April, an internal staff report by the US embassy and military command in Iraq on the security situation there found that in six of the country's eighteen provinces conditions were "serious" and in one (Anbar) "critical".

Anwar Rizvi is a translator, interpreter and writer whose work has been regularly published in Pakistan’s weekly papers, the Herald and the Independent. In 1991 he became trustee of a charity clandestinely delivering medicines and financial aid to Shi’a in southern Iraq following the failed uprising.

Also by Anwar Rizvi in openDemocracy:

"Shi'a rising in Iraq" (February 2005)

"Iraq united: Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim interviewed" (March 2005)

Most neutral observers of Iraq, especially those looking from outside and from a safe distance, might be tempted to agree with Iyad Allawi and Hosni Mubarak – as well as with experienced reporters such as Patrick Cockburn of the Independent who writes: "A cruel and bloody civil war has started in Iraq, a country which George Bush, the United States president, and Tony Blair, the British prime minister, promised to free from fear and establish democracy. I have been visiting Iraq since 1978, but for the first time, I am becoming convinced that the country will not survive." ("Iraq - now the most dangerous country", 9 April 2006 ).

The daily bombings; the escalating body-count; the continuing Shi'a-Sunni conflict (US forces estimate that 1,313 Iraqis were killed in March in such violence); the four-way tension in northern Iraq between the Kurds, Sunni, Shi'a and Turcomen; the volatile situation in Basra and its environs in the south – all add credence to the view that Iraq is indeed in a state of civil war.

A recent visit to Iraq gave me the opportunity to assess the situation there at firsthand.

Back from the brink

Haytham al-Husseini is a senior spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), the largest Shi'a party in the governing United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition. When I spoke with him, he sounded rather dismissive of Allawi's remarks. As a close confidante of Sciri leader Sayyid Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and privy to most of the behind-the-scenes political manoeuvrings taking place in Baghdad, al-Hussein speaks with some authority.

"What we are suffering from in Iraq is not a civil war", he says. "Rather, it is a crude attempt by the enemies of the Iraqi people to instigate one. God willing, (the insurgents) will fail." Al-Hussein's view is that the Samarra bombings have actually brought the Iraqi people closer together. This may sound idealistic, but facts on the ground bear it out to an extent. In the immediate aftermath of the Samarra bombing, there were revenge attacks by angry Shi'a mobs on Sunni mosques and communities, and retaliation by the Sunnis in equal measure. Yet the predicted bloodbath never materialised. Once more, Iraq came back from the brink – if only just.

While the Iraqi government and its fledgling security forces tried desperately to keep the situation under control, it ultimately came down to the religious leadership of both communities to try and restore order, and to their credit they managed to do that with a degree of success. Indeed, one of the unlikeliest alliances to emerge from the post-Samarra carnage was between the firebrand Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni religious leaders.

Al-Sadr vowed to seek bloody revenge after the Samarra assault, but he also held meetings with the Sunni leaders, ordered his "Mahdi army" militiamen to protect their mosques and to hold joint prayer meetings with their brethren. This compromising attitude is linked to a political strategy: al-Sadr has emerged as a key ally of the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom many Iraqi politicians (as well as the United States and Britain) are now keen to dislodge in favour of the man he defeated by a single vote among representatives of the Shi'a-dominated UIA, Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Meanwhile, the figure of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has also played a prominent if less vocal role in calming passions and averting the uncontrolled escalation of sectarian violence. Without this, it is likely that far worse would have happened.

A regional mosaic

This does not in itself disprove the "civil-war" theory. But it does suggest the need for a more nuanced view that takes into account the complexity of Iraq, including its regional variations.

Iraq is a country of great contrasts. Any visitor to Baghdad and parts of the so-called "Sunni triangle" could be forgiven for thinking that the country is indeed in the grip of a vicious and bloody civil war and on the verge of total disintegration. Daily bomb attacks on security forces and civilians alike have made life a complete misery for residents of the capital, and the sense of total insecurity and constant fear is palpable. Adding to the bloody insurgency are heavily-armed and out-of-control criminal gangs which carry out daylight robberies and kidnappings of their fellow citizens – quite often young children – for ransom, with total impunity.

If the visitor travels south from Baghdad and towards the cities of Karbala, Hilla and Najaf, however, he or she could be in a totally different country. The sense of insecurity is nowhere near as all-pervasive as in Baghdad. The huge influx of Shi'a pilgrims from all over the world into the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf has created a boom in property prices. Post-Saddam, these pilgrims are now free to stay for longer periods and carry out their religious obligations without being watched over by the feared mukhabarat (the now-disbanded, Saddam-era security service). The money being spent by the pilgrims has had a major impact on the local economy. Businesses are prospering as never before, and the latest mobile-phone technology and other imported electronic goods is on display everywhere.

This is not to suggest that people in these cities are blasé about what's happening in the rest of the country. On the contrary, almost everyone with whom I spoke felt that the occupation had been a complete disaster and, if anything, the indecision and bickering between politicians in Baghdad had made the situation far worse. What is without doubt, however, is that for the first time in decades these people are able to make decisions about their lives without having to look over their shoulders or seek permission from a Ba'ath party official. There is a genuine sense of freedom and it is exhilarating.

Travel further south and the situation changes yet again. The majority of the citizens of Basra remain dirt-poor, and have little hope of any improvement in their lives in the near future. The British army has lost a lot of the goodwill it had earned during the early days of the occupation, and communication between the civic authorities and the British army has all but broken down. Yet, even here, the situation is nowhere near as bad as in Baghdad. Despite numerous incidents involving the British army and local militias – and regular calls from local religious leaders to wage jihad against the infidels – by and large the city remains tense but calm.

A margin of opportunity

The use of the term "civil war" in relation to Iraq inevitably raises comparisons with the anarchy witnessed in recent years in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda. In almost all these places, the common denominator has been a battle for territory between rival factions led by publicly identifiable figures with clearly stated, albeit occasionally dubious, aims.

This is certainly not the case in Iraq. There are no pitched battles for territory and no known figureheads rallying the masses to a well-defined cause. The only known name that crops up regularly is that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and no one is quite sure if he is dead, alive or simply a nom de guerre for someone else entirely. What is happening is a concerted effort by a group or groups of highly-organised insurgents to cause maximum death and destruction. Their sole aim seems to be to strike fear into the hearts of all Iraqis and totally derail the rebuilding process, both political and physical, in this war-shattered country.

Their remarkable success in this endeavour so far is clearly aided by the political vacuum that has accompanied the long delay in forming a new government. The main point of contention of Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa party (the second-largest group in the UIA) is refusing pressure to make way for a replacement; this is becoming explicit from his domestic opponents among the Sunni and Kurdish parties, while Sciri's Haytham al-Hussein, in reaffirming that al-Jaafari remains the UIA's candidate for the post, qualified his comment by saying that "negotiations on this very important issue are continuing with all parties."

With democracy still very much in its infancy in Iraq, the country's politicians are having to learn the art of compromise and Realpolitik. Ultimately, Iraq's divisions may yet turn out to be her greatest strength. A government of national unity that includes representatives of all ethnic and sectarian groups might just be able to avert the much-heralded civil war from becoming a reality, and deliver to its citizens the one thing they so desperately crave: security.

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