Iraq in 2006: Will it be Civil War?

On the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion (21 March) former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi stated that he believed that civil war had begun in Iraq. This followed the bombing a month earlier of the Shia shrine in Samarra that unleashed a cycle of violence between Sunnis and Shia in which as many as a thousand people may have lost their lives. At the same time, political deadlock over the prime ministerial nominee continued to prevent the formation of a government three months after the elections. Allawi’s claim was strenuously denied by the US and UK governments, but the fear of civil war was acknowledged by Coalition officials. Yet whilst the country has taken a step back from the height of post-Samarra violence, the underlying threat of civil war has not diminished. Many of the structural dynamics for civil war are in place, and they exist in the very institutions which the US has based its key to success on. If these underlying causes are not rectified, year four in Iraq will require only a trigger to ignite full-scale civil war.

Despite the sectarian violence witnessed in Iraq the country does not yet have a civil war, or rather, it does not have a full-blown civil war. An inter-communal conflict is underway, but as it involves only relatively small militia on opposing sides at the moment, rather than grassroots communities, to define it now as civil war would be to obscure the potential for a fullscale war of community against community.

The imposition of democracy was inevitably going to create sectarian tensions in Iraq, a country where installing democracy would turn on its head the existing balance of power, in which the minority Sunni ruled over the majority Shia population, and where the Kurdish north would be unwilling to accept any reversal of the de facto independence it had enjoyed since the imposition of a no-fly zone at the end of the Gulf War.

However, it is the power vacuum that was created by the overthrow of the Ba’ath regime that put in place the initial dynamic for communal conflict. The seeds of sectarianism were sown with the decision that only a minimal 150,000 US troops would be needed to invade Iraq, and with the decision following the invasion to disband the 400,000-strong Iraqi army. Whilst using a small invasion force proved successful in terms of warfighting, in terms of post-conflict occupation it proved fatally inadequate to ensure security. Disbanding the Iraqi army compounded this error. The result was that with the collapse of state authority and the breakdown of law and order, the number of US troops proved insufficient to fill the gap, thus creating a power vacuum in Iraq.

It is this power vacuum that is responsible for the re-emergence of religious identity and for the rise of militia groups. This is what occurred in the Balkans. Under Tito’s rule the people of Yugoslavia generally considered themselves ‘Yugoslavs’, but when Tito died and the government collapsed, it opened up a power vacuum that created an environment of lawlessness and fear. Yugoslavs began to fear neighbours from other ethnic or religious groups. That fear led them to return to their ethnic and religious groups, and to the protection afforded by their respective militias. Identities were reconstructed as Croat, Muslim or Serb, and ethnic cleansing and civil war took hold.

This process is now underway in Iraq. A sentiment commonly voiced by Iraqi individuals is that neither US forces nor the government can protect them. The result, as each progressive election has shown, is that the once strong sense of Iraqi identity has become increasingly replaced with a predominantly sectarian identity, as Shia, Sunni or Kurd. The disbandment of the Iraqi army not only helped create the power vacuum that led to this, but it also removed the institution that most powerfully represented Iraqi national identity.

However, two parallel processes have been occurring in Iraq. The first process is that in which a power vacuum has led to the rise of sectarian identity, and the second is the political process being imposed in the Green Zone, divorced from the wider reality of Iraq. The concurrence of these two processes is at the root cause of the sectarian violence, for it has cemented divisive communal identities in the very institutions that are supposed to be the cure to the violence that is occurring. Instead, it is the very institutions themselves that are the problem.

Since the fall of Saddam, the violence that has been witnessed in Iraq has not simply been a war against the US-led forces there, but a combination of an anti-occupation insurgency and a low-intensity communal conflict, fought primarily between Sunni and Shia groups, together with deliberate attempts by foreign Jihadists to foment civil war. Until recently, this low-intensity communal conflict has been largely obscured or misinterpreted in the West by a preoccupation with the insurgency.

The majority of the communal violence has initially been by Sunni groups against the Shia-dominated police, army and security forces. The reason is that Sunni Arabs, deprived of their pre-eminent position in Iraq, now fear being dominated and marginalized by the Shia majority. Sunnis view the ‘national’ army as a Shia- Kurdish force. Its recruitment disproportionately comes from these two communities and its actions reinforce this perception. Following the Samarra bombing, Shia militia took to the streets flaunting their weapons and were frequently reported to be riding along with police and military patrols. It was also demonstrated by events such as that in November 2005, when 173 mostly Sunni prisoners were discovered in a prison run by the Ministry of the Interior with many showing signs of torture. What is more, officers in the Iraqi army have stated that usually when sectarian violence breaks out they are not given very strong orders to stop the actions of their fellow Shia. In addition, US reliance on hardened Kurdish troops, such as that during the assault on Fallujah, where two thousand Peshmerga military troops were used against the Sunni Arabs, has also contributed. As a result, lack of trust amongst Sunnis is pervasive. Furthermore, Sunni alienation has been enshrined in the new Iraqi constitution, which has provided a blueprint for the fragmentation of Iraq, with clauses on federalism that allow for the creation of a Shia super-region in nine southern governorates, which, in combination with a move to secession by the Kurds in the north, would leave the Sunnis deprived of Iraq’s oil wealth.

Now the political process has institutionalized sectarian division, with key government ministries becoming the fiefdoms of particular sects. The most controversial of these is that of the Ministry of the Interior, which has control over the police. Since the dominant party in the ruling Shia coalition, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), took charge of the Interior Ministry following the January election, there has been a marked increase in the number of killings of Sunnis. It has become clear that these are being undertaken by Shia militia, in particular by SCIRI’s Badr Corps, whose members are now entrenched in the police and are forming ‘death squads’ that are abducting, torturing and murdering Sunnis whilst in uniform. This is fuelling Sunni hostility towards the Shia and is acting as a significant factor in heightening the prospect for civil war.

The institutionalization of these sectarian divisions has also led to the political deadlock whereby non-Shia parties have opposed the re-nomination of Ibrahim Al- Jaafari as candidate for Prime Minister. He has been allowing Shia politicians to dominate the main ministries, and in particular permitting SCIRI to retain control of the Interior Ministry. This deadlock is producing a political vacuum that further boosts the power of the militias and increases violence.

At the same time as the structural dynamics for civil war have been falling into place, the factors which have so far had a restraining influence are now diminishing. Since the invasion, Iraq has owed it much of its ability to avert civil war to the influence of the revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has urged restraint from his followers in response to attacks against them. However, as violence continues, Sistani’s voice is becoming less effective and his command is being challenged by more radical clerics such as Moqtadr Al-Sadr, who has played a mixed role in controlling the violence in Iraq.

Following the Samarra bombing, it was Al- Sadr’s ‘Mahdi Army’ that was responsible for the majority of the violence against Sunnis, but it was also Al-Sadr’s appeal to his fighters for calm that prevented a serious escalation of the situation. Al-Sadr has been playing a precarious game in Iraq, at times appearing to incite violence, whilst at other times curtailing it. His unwillingness to disband his militia is a major concern, and the prospects for averting conflict will depend significantly on his stance in future circumstances.

However, the greatest restraining factor in preventing civil war in Iraq, so far, is the presence of Coalition troops. The paradox is that it is also their presence that is driving the anti-occupation insurgency, resulting in pressure for them to withdraw. If a reduction occurs in the already insufficient numbers of US and Coalition troops from problematic areas without a concomitant correction of the political and security institutions, it will lift the lid that has so far contained all-out conflict.

If the underlying causes are not addressed, there will come a time when increased attacks against Shia targets will reach a critical mass, or a tipping point, where Shia patience runs out and only a trigger, such as another provocative attack will be required to ignite the conflict. As the ruling majority in Iraq, and the group which has so far showed much restraint in the face of deliberately provocative attacks against them, it is the response of the Shia which will play a large role in determining whether civil war occurs.

Continued violence will have an increasingly polarizing effect that will lead to collective attribution of blame for the violence, generating a desire for revenge from the grassroots of communities, rather than simply the militia groups that have so far been involved. The signs of this are already present as even moderate Shias are starting to view Sunnis as disgruntled losers who are supporting terrorists in order to deny them from assuming their rightful position in the new Iraq.

Another worrying development is that the first signs of sectarian cleansing are appearing as fearful inhabitants in mixed neighbourhood move to zones where theirown group dominates. Figures now say that more than 30,000 Iraqis were displaced just in the month following the Samarra attack, with Sunnis and Shias returning to their respective strongholds.1 This is an ominous sign and a strong indicator that civil war is getting closer. If large-scale conflict breaks out, this displacement will become a torrent given the number of Iraq’s main cities such as Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra that have mixed populations.

There are, however, some grounds for hope in that the US is belatedly showing signs of understanding the causes of the problem, and Zalmay Kalilzad, the US Ambassador to Iraq since September 2005, has been conducting intensive efforts to address them. Kalilzad has threatened to block US funding to Iraq if the new  sectarianism, stating that the key ministries such as interior, defence and others have to be acceptable to all communities and with no links to militias. He has also urged Shia leaders to give Sunnis a greater say in government, and has told Shia leaders that the US would not support the retention of Ibrahim Al- Jaafari as Prime Minister. However, whilst commendable, these efforts may now be too little too late. The US has brought about the situation in Iraq because it has failed to understand that what it has been undertaking in Iraq is nation-building rather than simply statebuilding. Relying on the establishment of democracy and the creation of security forces alone is not sufficient. By doing so without accounting for the rise of communal identities in the power vacuum that followed the invasion, the US has actually built a government and security forces whose loyalty lies primarily not with the state, but to the very factions that need to be contained. Civil war is not yet inevitable in Iraq, but the genie of sectarianism has now not only been released, but given a seat at the table of government and the security apparatus which it controls; it will be a trick to get it back in.

Mark Thomas
Co-ordinator, Middle East & North Africa Programme, International Security Studies Department, RUSI

1 Figures released from the Iraqi government and echoed by the UN affiliated International Organization for Migration.

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