Does it matter if you call it a civil war?

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

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.

"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.

While there is still hope that Iraq can avoid going all the way down the same tragic road that ripped apart Lebanon, a growing number of political leaders and analysts are acknowledging that a de facto state of civil war is already here.

In the Sunni and Shiite neighborhood of Horriya, on the western edge of Baghdad, three Shiite barbers have been killed this month by Sunni religious extremists who think it's sinful to cut men's beards. After notes were slipped under their doors that they could be next, at least half a dozen barber shops have closed, and the rest have prominently posted signs that will no longer shave beards.

In largely Sunni neighborhoods like Dora and Al Ghaziliya, Shiite residents have received written death threats to leave the area. Sunnis in Shiite neighborhoods say they've received similar threats from the Badr Brigade, a militia loyal to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two big Shiite parties that now dominate the government.

A Shiite doctor in Dora, who asked that his name not be used, says he's looking for a new home since a note was slipped under his door last month. "All the dirty Shiites out of Iraq, or face death!" it warned, which brought back memories of his brother, killed for political activity by the Hussein regime in the early 1990s.

He says at least 15 Shiites in Dora have been killed in the last month. "We wake up with hope every day, but when the sun goes down, things are worse for us. I walk with death just because I'm a Shiite."

A Sunni women in the Latifiyah neighborhood, whose husband was a government official under Hussein and was assassinated earlier this year, points to the cluster of bullet holes in her front gate and the front window of her living room. "We know the Badr Brigade has a list of Sunnis they want to kill and we're on it. They want us out of this house. And the police are working with them."

Though the allegations are unproven, many Sunni Arabs make such comments. Similarly, there's a conviction among the Shiite Arab community that Sunni insurgents are seeking to reimpose a regime like Hussein's, which favored the Sunni minority and ruthlessly suppressed Shiite political activity.

Such breakdowns along confessional or ideological lines are the hallmarks of civil war and speak to why the drafters of Iraq's constitution have run up against so many problems.

Mr. Baev, at the Oslo peace institute, is skeptical that a solution will be found to Iraq's current violence in any constitution that could be completed soon.

"If you have major actors in a civil war who control a large part of the violence who sit down and negotiate power sharing, then you can hope that violence might subside,'' he says. "But it's very much a question of to what degree the negotiating parties control the armed formations. And in these processes, you can always have spoilers. It looks as if the Sunnis are increasingly being excluded from power-sharing arrangements."

At the moment, the major powers in much of Iraq are Shiite militias like the Badr Brigade, and the Peshmerga militias of the Kurds in the North. While Kurdish areas are much more peaceful than the rest of the country, residents of Kirkuk - an oil rich and ethnically mixed city that the Kurd's are claiming as a future capitol, allege they've been involved in systematically driving Arabs from their homes.

"I'm amazed Kirkuk hasn't flared up yet,'' says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "I hate to say this - but the only solution might be to simply let the people of Iraq fight it out and get so fatigued from the fighting, that they eventually reach some sort of compromise."

Kurdish leaders, who see the current constitutional debate as a potential stepping stone to autonomy, occasionally threaten pulling out of Iraq entirely if they're not satisfied by negotiations soon. "If the constitution doesn't settle the issue of Kirkuk, we could just back up and go back to the north. We know these other parties, they're just stalling until they get stronger than us in the future,'' says says Faraj al-Haydari, a senior official in the Baghdad offices of the Kurdish Democratic Party.

Saleh Mutlak, a leading Sunni on the drafting committee, says it looks to him like Shiites and Kurds are looking to cut a deal among themselves on the constitution that will leave areas they dominate with the lion's share of Iraq's resources, "something we will never allow to happen." Mr. Mutlak dismisses the dominant Shiite parties, Sciri and Dawa, as "Iranian Shiites,'' whose first loyalties aren't to Iraq. Many Sciri and Dawa activists were exiled to Iran, a Shiite theocracy, until Saddam fell.

But that's not his only worry. As with many modern civil wars, its contestants have multiple enemies. Mutlak says he fears reprisals not only from Shiite militias, but from the wing of the Sunni insurgency led by the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant behind many of Iraq's most devastating attacks on civilians.

Mr. Zarqawi and his followers reject all participation in the political process, and are suspected to be behind the murder last week of three activists from the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that Mutlak is close to, in the northern city of Mosul. The three were canvassing for Sunni participation in upcoming elections.

Though there has been extensive training and equipment programs for the new Iraqi army and police, few Iraqis seem to be putting much faith in them. While Sunnis complain that new forces are infiltrated by the militias of the major Shiite parties, even many Shiites prefer to rely on sectarian militias for their own protection.

Majid Jabr Faihod, for example, sits in his family's spare home in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, and describes how the death of his father in May turned into a family tragedy. He stayed behind as eight family members - including three of his four brothers - took their father to be buried near the holy Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, a centuries-old Shiite practice.

On the way there, the minibus transporting them was waylaid in Latifiyah, a Sunni insurgent stronghold. The eight men were separated from the women in the bus, and driven away, along with their father's coffin. Mr. Faihod says that all of the men were mutilated, then killed and dragged through the streets of Latifiyah, along with their father's body.

"This is entirely because we're Shiite, and they hate us," says Faihod. "The armed forces are weak and can't protect us. Here in Sadr City, thank God, we can rely on the Mahdi Army."

The Mahdi Army is the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and while it's been out of the headlines since fighting pitched battles with US forces last year for control of Najaf, it appears as strong as ever in Sadr City, an almost completely Shiite section of Baghdad with 2 million people.

In recent weeks, Islamic vigilantes believed to be aligned with the Mahdi Army have killed a number of Sadr City residents for the crime of "immorality." In Faihod's case, the Mahdi Army paid for the family's mass funeral and provided security on the second trip to Najaf.

"We believe in the old law, blood for blood,'' says Raad Faihod, the other surviving brother. "The truth has to come out, and the truth is that all of these terrorists are Sunnis and their political parties. They have to be dealt with."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Does it matter if you call it a civil war?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today