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Does it matter if you call it a civil war?

Iraq's constitution could be seen as a draft 'peace pact' for warring parties.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 22, 2005


Finding a way to head off civil war is at the heart of all the major initiatives - including the talks over a new constitution - in Iraq. But by most common political-science definitions of the term, "civil war" is already here.

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"It's not a threat. It's not a potential. Civil war is a fact of life there now,'' says Pavel Baev, head of the Center for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway. He argues that until the nature of the conflict is accurately seen, good solutions cannot be found. "What's happening in Iraq is a multidimensional conflict. There's international terrorism, banditry, the major foreign military presence. But the civil war is the central part of it - the violent contestation for power inside the country."

What this means in practical terms, is that an immediate US withdrawal isn't likely to bring peace to Iraq, say analysts. Nor is simply "staying the course," if it isn't matched by a political peace treaty among the warring parties - a role that a new constitution, facing a midnight tonight deadline, could fill.

The academic thumbnail definition of a civil war is a conflict with at least 1,000 battlefield casualties, involving a national government and one or more nonstate actors fighting for power.

While the US has lost 1,862 soldiers, getting an accurate casualty count beyond that is difficult. The Iraqi government and US military say they don't keep figures on Iraqi troops or civilians killed. According to, a website run by academics and peace activists, 24,865 Iraqi civilians were killed between March 2003 and March 2005. The report said that US-led forces killed 37 percent of the total.

The spreadsheets in Dr. Faad Ameen Bakr's computer shed some light on the casualty rate. Baghdad's chief pathologist pulls down the death toll for Iraq's capital in July: 1,083 murders, a new record.

Under Saddam Hussein, Baghdad was a violent city. But the highest murder rate before the war was 250 in one month. (By comparison, New York City with about 2 million more residents, had 572 murders in 2004, and a peak of 2,245 in 1990).

The month of June, with 870 murders, was the previous record in Baghdad. In a weary monotone, Dr. Bakr explains that 680 of the victims were shot, the rest "strangled, electrocuted, stabbed, killed by blunt trauma or burned to death." The totals don't include residents killed by Baghdad's frequent car-bombings.

While he won't discuss the religious background of the victims - citing the vulnerability of himself and his staff - Bakr says a growing number of victims show signs of "extreme torture" and arrive at the morgue in handcuffs or bound with the plastic ties used by the Iraqi military and police. "I wouldn't call it a civil war, but I would call it chronic instability," he says.

The second part of the definition of a civil war is whether the national government is battling nonstate or other internal forces.

A year ago it was common to hear Iraqi politicians say most of the fighting was resistance to US occupation, and would subside with a US military withdrawal. Today, few voice that view.

"We are living in an undeclared civil war among Iraq's political groups,'' says Nabil Yunos, the head of political affairs for the Dignity Party, a Sunni party. "It's not just Sunnis that are the problem. It's the Shiites, the Kurds, it's everyone. The violence has gotten worse, and we're entering a very dangerous period."

In Baghdad, "soft cleansing" is taking place in a number of mixed neighborhoods, with targeted assassinations scaring Sunnis out of some, and Shiites out of others. In the south, Shiite militias, not the new army and police, are the major power.