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Iraqi Civil War? Some Experts Say It's Arrived

The full extent of the conflict is veiled by the presence of U.S. troops, says one, but Americans' premature exit could lead to far worse strife.

January 01, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Fourteen members of a Shiite Muslim family are slaughtered in their home. Days later, masked gunmen invade a Sunni Arab household, killing five people. Organized political killing proceeds, as if there had not been elections two weeks ago.

In a speech delivered as Iraqis prepared to go to the polls, President Bush said he didn't believe a civil war would break out in the country. But some observers believe it has already begun -- a quiet and deadly struggle whose battle lines were thrown into sharp relief by the highly polarized vote results.

On any given day, a group of Shiite police might be hit in a Sunni suicide attack or ambush. A militiaman in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security services might arrest, torture and kill a suspected Sunni insurgent. Or a Kurdish official in the new government might be gunned down between home and office.

Unless the assassination target is prominent, or the number of victims rises to at least the high single digits, such events barely rate a mention in Western news reports. Yet the most reliable estimates are that about 1,000 Iraqis have been dying each month, most of them killed by fellow Iraqis.

The term "civil war" conjures images of armies massed against each other, and ultimately the breakup of a state -- a far cry from the democratic paradigm the U.S. government meant to achieve in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 2 1/2 years ago.

Iraqi politicians and leaders routinely extol the country's unity and its aversion to civil war. Last week, Abbas Bayati, an official of the Shiite-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said it would never happen, because the country's religious leaders would not permit it.

Other experts inside and outside Iraq are less sure.

James Fearon, a Stanford University political scientist and an authority on modern conflicts, believes that Iraq's civil war began almost as soon as Hussein was ousted, and that it is now obscured and partly held back by the presence of foreign forces.

"I think there is definitely a civil war that has been going on since we finished the major combat operations," Fearon said. He rejects the position of many observers that a civil war is still only a possibility for Iraq.

"When people talk about 'Will there be a civil war?' they are really talking about a different type of civil war," he said.

The kind of war emerging in Iraq, characterized by guerrilla attacks, kidnappings, assassinations and "ethnic cleansing," is typical of modern civil conflicts, Fearon said.

"Since 1945, almost all civil wars, a big plurality, have been guerrilla wars where it is kind of insurgency versus counterinsurgency," he said. "Most civil wars look more like what we are seeing in Iraq now."

The presence of U.S. troops in the conflict would not be unusual, he said. "A great number [of civil wars] have involved foreign intervention. But I would still call it a civil war on grounds that the insurgents are attacking and killing far more Iraqis than U.S. troops."

Although he sees the recent elections as a possible step forward, he thinks that if delicate government talks now getting started fail to end in compromise, the war among Iraqis could widen and intensify into open fighting on a larger scale, particularly if U.S. troops withdraw from the country too quickly.

Broadly speaking, the struggle pits armed Sunni factions desperate to regain power in Iraq against Shiite militiamen. The latter are intent on protecting the new government, which Shiites dominate, and to avenge past and current harms at the hands of the Sunnis. Kurds, meanwhile, also are targeted by the Sunnis. Their goal of independence or strong autonomy, and their wish to add the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to their region, has put them on a possible collision course with the rest of the country.

One former mid-ranking Iraqi government official, who asked not to be named, said he had been forced to abandon his Baghdad neighborhood because of his Shiite name and now conceals his identity when he travels between the capital and his home village near Babylon.

"You cannot drive in the south bearing a Sunni name. You cannot go to [Al] Anbar [province] with a Shiite name,'' he said. "There is not a civil war across the whole country, but there are civil wars in at least 20 towns -- low-intensity civil war."

Sectarian Violence

Since the summer of 2003, mosques have been bombed and hit with rockets, people have been kidnapped, and hitherto mixed Baghdad districts such as Ghazaliya and Doura have slowly and inexorably been "cleansed" of Shiites through intimidation and violence. Similar pressures have been put on Sunnis in villages in the Shiite-dominated south and on Arabs and Turkmens in Kirkuk.

In a grisly example of the strife, 14 members of a Shiite family who had been warned to leave their mostly Sunni neighborhood were slain last week in their home in a mixed area just south of Baghdad that has become known as the "triangle of death."

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