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Why Islam lies at the heart of Iraq's civil war

Because it does, US withdrawal may be the surest path to peace.

By Monica Duffy Toft / June 2, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

It matters what we call things. It took too long for the Bush administration to admit that its intended liberation of Iraq had become an occupation, that US forces faced a home-grown insurgency there, and that a transition to Iraqi democracy might not result in a nation that supports US interests.

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Finally, not until 2007 did the Pentagon acknowledge that Iraqi sectarian violence had crossed a threshold to become a civil war.

But policymakers still haven't come to terms with the implications of that fact. If they did, they'd see that a wisely executed withdrawal of US-led forces could well be the surest path to peace. That's because withdrawal is likely to transform the fighting in Iraq into a defensive struggle for power in a nation-state, as opposed to an offensive battle rooted in religion.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the war in Iraq is a religious civil war and that – even putting aside Al Qaeda in Iraq – Islam is at the heart of it for three reasons.

First, Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites themselves see the war in these terms. They identify first and foremost as Shiites and Sunnis. Second, they use religious identity both to target opponents and define threats. Finally, they have appealed beyond the borders of Iraq for aid – fighters, arms, cash – in religious terms.

Islam is not based in a specific territory; it is a transnational faith that unites its community, or umma, in the minds of men.

Further, Islam does not have one leader who can dictate what is right or who is wrong. The absence of an ultimate authority figure means that Shiites – who, unlike Sunnis, believe that religious scholars are needed to help interpret the will of God – often latch on to charismatic imams.

This helps explain why the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has recently committed himself to further religious study in Iran. It also helps to explain why Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will fail to gain acceptance as a leader among the vast majority of Iraq's Shiite population.

Not only does Mr. Maliki not have support in the street – his government's failure to deliver even basic security and life's needs is apparent to most Iraqis – but he has no religious credentials of his own to fall back on.

By contrast, Mr. Sadr's ability to deliver security and services through his Mahdi Army, and his authority as cleric and the son of the martyred Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, has assured him a devoted following.