Iraq risks 'return' to war? Maybe the wrong question.

Iraq is less violent than it was and the press frequently wonders if the country could descend into war again. What if the war never ended?

May was the most violent month in Iraq since June 2008, with 1,045 people killed. The next most violent month since 2008? This April, with 712 people killed.

Death has stalked Iraqis in the form of car bombs on mosques and markets, assassinations of political figures, and organized massacres of security forces, prompting many to wonder if Iraq could plunge back into another sectarian civil war like the one that raged in the middle of the last decade, and claimed over 3,000 lives a month at its height.

"Systemic violence is ready to explode at any moment if all Iraqi leaders do not engage immediately to pull the country out of this mayhem," UN special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, said earlier this month.

While I think that Iraqis are sufficiently horrified at the prospect that it has restrained a surge in the conflict, looked at from a broader perspective than its own recent tragic history. Iraq is currently one of the deadliest conflicts in the world - probably in the top five. Syria at the moment is certainly bloodier. The drug war in Mexico (which some would not consider a war) probably claimed more than 10,000 lives last year. Good numbers on deaths from conflict in Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali are currently hard to come by, but after that it's hard to think of a conflict that would be as or more bloody than Iraq currently is. 

Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who focuses on civil conflict and instability (and runs an excellent blog), reckons that Iraq is almost certainly currently among the top 10 deadliest conflicts and "very likely top 5"  and estimates it could be near the top with Syria if per capita deaths are taken into account. 

Collecting statistics from war zones is far from an exact science, and combatants have incentives to minimize their own casualties, maximize those of their opponents, and point the finger of blame elsewhere for civilian debts, adding more uncertainty.

Total deaths in the Afghanistan war, for instance, aren't compiled on a regular basis by anyone. Though the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan estimated 2,754 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2012 and the well respected recorded 74 deaths that year for the US-led NATO coalition, deaths among anti-government insurgents and within the Afghan security forces don't appear to be tracked regularly by any outside body. However, an analysis of 2011 deaths by the Congressional Research Service estimated 1,080 deaths that year among Afghan soldiers and police and 3,021 among civilians. That year, 402 members of the US-led coalition were killed. 

In the absence of decent data on deaths within the Taliban and other insurgent groups, let's just make a number up (thoroughly scientific, I know). Let's assume that the 2011 death toll among Afghan civilians and security forces and among the foreign coalition were matched by deaths among insurgents (which is almost certainly an over-count. That would yield a total of 9,000 killed in Afghanistan that year.)

How does Iraq stack up? If the average monthly rate of deaths from conflict there over the past two months held up for a year, that would yield over 10,000 dead. That's of course not likely - violence typically ebbs and flows month to month, and picking the worst two month period over the past five years to extrapolate from almost certainly will end up producing an overestimate. Adding in the death tolls for March (271) and February (220) yields an artificial annual death toll of 6,744. 

The point is that the Iraq of right now could reasonably be considered to be in a type of war, albeit a low-level one with little chance that the current Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki being ousted. Is what's happening now a civil war? I guess it depends on how you define the terms.

In August 2005, I wrote that Iraq was probably already a civil war (a politically unpopular conclusion at the time, with the US eager to portray itself in the mopping up phase after dismantling the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein):

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.

Obviously things are currently better than that – but not by much. The horrors that Iraqis continue to confront, in a war that the US has largely put out of its mind, continue and remain the country's deepest challenge.

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