Imprecise definitions can have far-reaching consequences

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Many politicians have determined Iraq to be in a civil war. "We're not fighting terrorism in Iraq," Rep. John Murtha (Democrat-Penn.) said on January 27, 2006, "We're fighting a civil war in Iraq."[1] He is not alone. On November 27, 2006, NBC sparked media and political debate when it announced it would henceforth label the violence in Iraq a civil war. Such a designation is significant. Major-General William Nash (ret.) explains failure to acknowledge that a civil war exists "means that our counter-measures are inadequate and, therefore, dangerous to our long-term interests."[2] A March 2007 Pentagon report augmented the debate. "Some elements of the situation in Iraq are properly descriptive of a ‘civil war,' including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities and mobilization, the changing character of the violence and population displacements," it said.[3] However, the debate should not be political. Precision matters. If Iraq is not in a civil war, using the term for U.S. domestic political reasons might undercut efforts to restore stability.

If the Sunnis and Shi‘a are fighting for control of Iraq, then the U.S. is caught in a sectarian civil war. This would require a paradigm shift in understanding the conflict: Are government security forces legitimate instruments of the Iraqi people's will or simply agents of Shi‘i political parties? Are attacks against Iraqi police factional acts or terrorist acts against a democratic government? Are coalition forces engaged in stabilization operations, or are they allies of one Iraqi faction seeking to dominate another? If so, should the U.S. military support a single faction or withdraw?

Important U.S. strategic interests are at stake. The Bush administration has made the establishment of democratic regimes a cornerstone of the U.S. national security strategy.[4] Because the Shi‘a are the majority in Iraq, a democratic Iraq is equivalent to Shi‘i empowerment. Shi‘i empowerment and effective Sunni participation need not be mutually exclusive, though. However, should the Shi‘i-dominated central government use state security services to dominate the Sunni, then the United States is no longer fighting to spread democracy but rather supporting one side in a sectarian conflict.

If Iraq is in a sectarian civil war, then U.S. insertion in a civil war would mean alliance with either the Shi‘a or Sunni. If U.S. policymakers support the Iraqi Shi‘a, they risk alienating Sunni Muslims worldwide. Many Sunni officials outside Iraq might depict a U.S.-Shi‘i alliance as crusading because, they would say, the Iraqi Sunni Arabs had not previously posed a significant terrorist threat to the United States. Further, because Salafis—those Sunnis who believe their own fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur'an is the only legitimate one—depict Shi‘a as apostates, U.S. support for the Shi‘a would provide further motivation to Sunni jihadists. Lastly, if Iraq's Shi‘a emerge victorious in a civil war, as opposed to increasing their power by means of the U.S.-backed political process, Iranian strategic interests might advance at the expense of U.S. interests. If Iraq is embroiled in a sectarian civil war, it may be unwise for the U.S. government to support Shi‘i parties or a Shi‘i-dominated government.

This does not mean an alliance with Iraqi Sunni Arabs would be in U.S. interests, either. Iraqi Shi‘i officials would interpret overt support for the minority Iraqi Sunni Arabs as abandonment of democratization. Even if this were not a concern, the U.S. government has no clear allies among the various Sunni groups. The most secular groups are affiliated with the former Baathist regime, which, when in power, demonstrated themselves to be a threat to international stability on numerous occasions. Empowerment of the Sunni insurgency's jihadist elements would be inimical to U.S. and broader Western interests. Overt U.S. support for any Sunni element would also enable Tehran to rally Iraq's majority Shi‘i population around it and against Washington. The problems involved in any such choice lead many political leaders to judge withdrawal to be prudent. After the bombing of the golden-domed Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra on February 22, 2006, Rep. Maxine Waters (Democrat-Calif.) said, "We cannot expect our soldiers to try to sort out which side is which in this civil war, and we should not take sides."[5]

Others argue that U.S. involvement is necessary to prevent further spread of conflict and destabilization beyond Iraq's borders.[6] The fact that Iraq's sectarian makeup is reflected beyond its borders creates a danger of spill-over. Georgetown professor Daniel Byman and Clinton-era National Security Council staffer Kenneth Pollack suggest tripling the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 450,000. That these experts propose tripling U.S. military presence as a result of a change in their understanding of the conflict underlines the centrality of the question of civil war.

What Is a Civil War?

Too often, underlying claims that Iraq is in a civil war are political posturing and imprecise definitions. Even among specialists, there is little consensus about definitions. Any such determination, however, requires precise criteria that establish what a civil war is. The U.S. Army uses five criteria to recognize civil war: 1) The contestants must control territory; 2) there must be a functioning government; 3) each side must enjoy some foreign recognition; 4) the sides should have identifiable and regular armed forces; and 5) they should engage in major military operations.[7] At present, only the first of these five criteria is met in Iraq. Jihadists control territory in Anbar province and some areas on Baghdad's outskirts. But the jihadists do not have a functioning government anywhere in Iraq, nor do they have regular armed forces that engage in major military operations.

The U.S. Army's definition is not universally accepted, however. Former national director of intelligence John Negroponte defined a civil war as "a complete loss of central government security control, [and] the disintegration or deterioration of the security forces of the country."[8] J. David Singer, political science professor and former consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and State Department, and his protégé Errol A. Henderson define civil war as "sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain."[9] Such criteria justify the civil war label, but by Henderson and Singer's definition, Iraq has suffered seven separate civil wars in the last forty-five years.

The claim that Iraq is in a civil war not only implies high levels of sustained violence but also that the Iraqi government is too weak to defend its citizens. To conclude that a civil war exists in Iraq implies a fundamental change in the nature of fighting. In March and April 2003, the U.S. military confronted an enemy regime's military in conventional combat. Between April 2003 and January 2005, the U.S. military supported a transitional government to preserve stability. Throughout 2005, U.S. and coalition forces were protecting a fledgling democracy in Iraq. In October 2005, Iraqis voted to approve a constitution; two months later, they voted for a new government that Shi‘i parties dominate. If subsequent violence is an effort by Sunni Arabs in Iraq to overthrow what they perceive to be an oppressive Shi‘i regime, then Washington is no longer fighting the same conflict it was eighteen months ago.

Will Iraq Disintegrate?

Following the Samarra mosque bombing, former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi said, "We are losing each day an average of fifty to sixty people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."[10] Such pronouncements should be taken with a grain of salt. Allawi sought to make a political comeback on a law-and-order platform and, at any rate, defining civil war on the loss of sixty Iraqis per day is questionable.

Still, as in the United States, the Iraqi debate about civil war has ramifications. When Iraqi politicians speak of civil war, they undermine the legitimacy of the Shi‘i-led government and, also, imply that the Iraqi government should provide further concessions to minority parties. Salafi jihadists often seek civil war as a political aim. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, introduced talk of civil war into the public discourse when he declared war against the Shi‘a on September 14, 2005.[11]

Underlying both the Iraqi and Western determination of civil war and state failure are questions over the viability of the Iraqi central government. Do the Iraqi people perceive political participation to be the most effective means of satisfying their needs and interests, or do they turn to nongovernmental agents for services the government fails to provide? Many of the Shi‘i political parties are replicating Lebanon's Hezbollah model. Amar Hakim, son of Abdul Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Republic in Iraq (SCIRI), runs the Shahid al-Mihrab Establishment for Promoting Islam throughout the towns and villages of southern Iraq. He trades material welfare for support.

When the Iraqi government distributed ministries, Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters seized upon the social service ministries to expand their networks. Through the Maktab ash-Shahid as-Sadr (Office of the Martyr Sadr), they offer community services, and with the Jaysh al-Mahdi (Mahdi Army), they offer security. In many neighborhoods, the Sadrists substitute their own order for the central government's. But neither SCIRI's supporters nor the Sadrists reject the political process. Rather, they form perhaps the two most important blocs within the central government and, also, play dominating roles in the provincial councils of southern Iraq. It is unclear whether the Sadrists would want to monopolize the government. At present, they thrive by claiming responsibility for all that is good in the individual's life while blaming all that is bad on the official government. With unquestioned accountability, they might lose their appeal.

Likewise, while many Iraqi Kurds might harbor some separatist tendencies, rather than eschew the central Iraqi state, they have sought to integrate themselves into its management. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is president of Iraq. Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, nominated his cousin and top aide, Hoshyar Zebari, to be Iraq's foreign minister. Many Kurdish leaders have calculated that, whether for a larger share of Iraq's oil revenue—the southern Iraqi oil fields are far richer than those in northern Iraq—or for defense against the meddling of Iran or Turkey, their interest lies in support of the central government. Like the Sadrists, the Kurds offer a limited alternative to the political process but do not seek its breakdown.

Iraqi Sunni Arabs did seek to stymie the democratic process from taking hold and boycotted the January 2005 elections, but upon realizing that a boycott would not work, they reconsidered their strategy and participated in the October 2005 constitutional referendum and the subsequent elections. While most Sunni Arabs dislike Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, few have shown a willingness to abandon the political process completely. They might engage in violence and even terrorism, but they do this to win political concessions, not to overthrow the existing order. They often negotiate with the same government whose security forces they attack. Should they provoke all-out civil war, they would likely enable the establishment of a Shi‘i theocracy, an outcome that most Sunni leaders recognize would not be in their communal interests. The central government may be weak, but it does not appear in danger of collapse.

Still, population displacement and refugee outflow are cause for concern. Proportionately, however, the current strife in Iraq does not compare with other recent crises. During the Bosnian civil war, half the country's population became displaced. In Kosovo, perhaps two-thirds of Kosovar Albanians fled the country. This would be equivalent to perhaps thirteen million displaced Iraqis;[12] the actual number of displaced Iraqis is only about one-seventh of that number.[13] This is not surprising given that most of Iraq is relatively stable. The Shi‘a in Iraq's nine southern provinces face more risk from vigilante morality squads than from Sunni Arabs. The Kurds fear arbitrary arrest or extortion by their political leaders' security services more than attacks by other ethnic militias.

It is true that areas of mixed populations have become battlegrounds. In Baquba, the capital of the Diyala province, for example, both Sunnis and Shi‘a have fled violence. Such internal displacement, however, has not led to a significant humanitarian crisis, perhaps because those who fled their homes could rely on larger family or tribal security nets. The situation would need to worsen exponentially to achieve "civil war" levels. Given that most of Iraq was divided along sectarian lines to begin with, there seems to be very limited potential for the internal displacement situation to worsen beyond control, regardless of how intense and brutal the sectarian conflict becomes.

Perhaps the most important determiner of a civil war is the purpose for which violence is perpetrated. As the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong wrote, "Without a political goal, guerrilla warfare must fail, as it must if its political objectives do not coincide with the aspirations of the people and their sympathy, cooperation, and assistance cannot be gained."[14] It makes little sense to describe the situation in Iraq as a civil war if the combatants do not have clear political agendas. Vague notions such as "a return to a Sunni-dominated Iraq" are insufficient. In order to galvanize the support of the Sunni Arab population, Sunni fighters would need to delineate a practical program. While some Salafists do propose an alternative to democracy in Iraq, their vision of a Taliban-like Islamic emirate has negligible support, even among Sunnis.[15] Shi‘i-provoked violence is more problematic. The militias conducting attacks against the Sunnis are affiliated with major Shi‘i political parties. While these fighters do not threaten the Iraqi government directly, they pose a significant threat to the government's legitimacy and long-term stability. Should any future Iraqi government pursue a course contrary to that advocated by the militias' parties, a real civil war could erupt.

Likewise, while the deaths of perhaps 100 Iraqis daily is tragic,[16] the motive for their murder should be an important factor in determining whether a civil war exists. Today, different groups perpetrate violence for disparate reasons. The Jaysh al-Mahdi and Badr Corps justify their detention, torture, and murder of Sunni Arabs as defensive measures against alleged terrorists. They do not generally target the government or security forces, nor are their attacks against Sunni Arabs indiscriminate. They kill or kidnap Sunni civilians in response to attacks against Shi‘i civilians, and they aggressively pursue Sunni Arab insurgents. The ethnic cleansing that is alleged to be taking place in certain mixed neighborhoods does not appear to be part of a general policy of ridding Iraq of Sunni Arabs. There is no ideological commitment on the part of any Shi‘i political party to a pure Shi‘i state. Rather, it appears local branches of Shi‘i militias are retaliating disproportionately for attacks against Shi‘a in those neighborhoods. Much of the killing is personal, not political.

Much of the violence is also criminal rather than political. The Iraqi police are often ineffective. Many young Iraqi men join the insurgency for a paycheck.[17] They receive cash for placing improvised explosive devices along the roadside. Others kidnap hostages for ransom.


There is no dispute about the dire situation in Iraq. Insurgents, militias, terrorists, and death squads are killing civilians at an alarming rate. Security forces are unreliable, and the Iraqi government is not meeting the needs of the people. Iraq is in a worse state than U.S. policymakers expected it would be three years ago.

However, it does not follow that Iraq is in a civil war. While the government is weak, there is no political force presenting it with a serious challenge. Iraq is, indeed, an unstable nation, but there is little danger of regime change, the ultimate purpose of a civil war. The armed groups most likely to participate in an eventual civil war lack both the capacity and the will to enter into such a conflict in earnest at the present time.

This does not mean that violence will decline; quite the contrary, as the referendum on the future status of the disputed city of Kirkuk nears, violence may increase. Nor does the central government appear able to consolidate power in the short term. Its inability to provide security and basic services will lead local officials, including unelected leaders of religious factions, to assume more power. But, in the long term, the central government will survive and take on a more significant role in keeping Iraq unified. For U.S. and coalition policymakers, assisting Iraq's transition to democracy will require patience, diplomacy, and ingenuity.

However, unfounded concerns over a civil war erupting could prompt an overreaction from U.S. policymakers. Should they conclude that Iraq is in a civil war—even if they base their determination on political expediency and no clear criteria—the most likely response would be a demand for withdrawal. A premature withdrawal of coalition forces could motivate the Sunni Arab insurgency to unify behind a political program; Sunni Arab civilians would likely lose any remaining confidence in the security forces, and many more would flee their homes. The Jaysh al-Mahdi undeterred would expand its influence and become the government's rival for the people's loyalty. Premature withdrawal could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating the conditions for a civil war that do not currently exist.

David A. Patten is a sergeant with the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Stony Brook University. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Army.

[1] The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Jan. 27, 2006.
[2] ABC News, Mar. 5, 2006.
[3] Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, U.S. Department of Defense, Mar. 2007; The Washington Post, Mar. 15, 2007.
[4] National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, National Security Council, Washington, D.C., Nov. 2005; George W. Bush, second inaugural address, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2005.
[5] Maxine Waters, "The Deteriorating Situation in Iraq," statement, U.S. House of Representatives, Feb. 16, 2006.
[6] Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, "What Next?" The Washington Post, Aug. 20, 2006.
[7] "Terms and Definitions," Military Operations in Low Intensity Conflict, U.S. Army Field Manual 100-20, Dec. 5, 1990.
[8] The Washington Post, Mar. 1, 2006;, Mar. 1, 2006.
[9] Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," The Journal of Peace Research, May 2000, pp. 275-99.
[10] The Telegraph (London), Mar. 20, 2006 ;, Mar. 20, 2006.
[11] (Doha), Sept. 17, 2005.
[12] Byman and Pollack, "What Next?"
[13] Supplementary Appeal Iraq Situation Response (New York: The United Nations Human Rights Council, Jan. 2007), p. 2.
[14] Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith II (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1961), p. 43.
[15] Fourteen percent of Sunnis in Iraq supported an Islamic state in Iraq: "Iraq—Where Things Stand," ABC News poll, Dec. 12, 2005; 94 percent of Iraqis, including 77 percent of Iraqi Sunnis expressed disapproval for Al-Qaeda: "The Iraqi Public on the U.S. Presence and the Future of Iraq," poll, Program on International Policy Attitudes, College Park, Md., Sept. 27, 2006.
[16] "Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to paragraph 30 of resolution 1546 (2004)," The United Nations Security Council, Sept. 1, 2006, p. 12; The New York Times, July 18, 2006.
[17] Michael Eisenstadt and Jeffrey White, "Assessing Iraq's Sunni Arab Insurgency," Policy Focus #50, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., Dec. 2005, p. 14.