A Civil War in Iraq?

The fundamental problem with Iraq is that it has the most ethnically diverse population in the Arab world. These entities have been at odds for centuries, but especially since the old Turkish Empire collapsed at the end of World War I. Peace will come to Iraq only when these competing elements—most especially the Sunni Arabs—agree to cooperate and live in peace. Only then can a truly democratic society be created in that country.

Diverse forces are in full collision in Iraq at the moment, and Americans have only a limited say in how events will play out. Most important, the view most Americans have held since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003—that the insurgency is part of the war on terror—is largely incorrect. The insurgency in Iraq is a low-grade civil war. Terrorists are only a part of it, and they are not directing events.

The view held by a number of American observers—that we could have prevented all this disorder if we have entered Iraq with overwhelming force—is also incorrect. If we had done so, we might have prevented some of the looting of public buildings and some of the initial insecurity. But the real conflict in Iraq has always been between the formerly dominant Sunnis and the more numerous but formerly impotent Kurds and Shiites.

Iraq is the home of these three major cultural elements, as well as several smaller minorities. The Turks kept these elements more or less at peace by dividing the land into three large provinces and by enforcing iron rule. When the British took over in 1920, however, they wanted to establish a single state in order more easily to exploit the oil of the region. They cobbled all the separate elements together in an effort to establish a unified nation..

It didn’t work. A Sunni elite in Baghdad gained control of the government, and—using a Sunni-dominated army—kept power after Britain withdrew in 1932, oppressing the Shiites, Kurds, and minorities. As Joel Rayburn writes in the March/April 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, “these groups spent the next seventy years of Iraq’s independence with daggers drawn, each decade pocked by civil war.”

The American occupation of Iraq upset this order. We were left with a mixed bag—support from the Shiites and the Kurds who saw the Americans as a means of their achieving power, and hostility from the Sunnis who had been ousted.

In an attempt to drive out the Americans and regain dominance, the Sunnis instigated a guerrilla war. Accordingly, the chaos in Iraq has been largely confined to Sunni areas. As Stephen Biddle writes in the March/April 2006 Foreign Affairs, 85 percent of the violence is concentrated in the four provinces that make up the Sunni heartland.

“The overwhelming majority of the insurgents in Iraq are indigenous Sunnis, and the small minority who are non-Iraqi members of al Qaeda or its affiliates are able to operate only because Iraqi Sunnis provide them with safe houses, intelligence, and supplies,” Biddle writes.

A Sunni-dominated guerrilla war was difficult for Americans to comprehend at the outset. After 9/11, we were preoccupied with killing al Qaeda terrorists. Therefore, we at first saw the partisan uprising as a terrorist movement. This impression was seemingly confirmed by vicious murders by al Qaeda’s chief operative in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But al Qaeda was and is not calling the shots. The insurrection has always been directed by the Sunnis. It has not succeeded because American forces, though suffering losses, have never been in danger of losing control.

Al Qaeda’s motives have consistently been to shatter the secular state in Iraq—and to use the country as the base from which to destroy all secular Muslim states in the Middle East, imposing on the ruins a rigid, oppressive religious regime ruled by a caliph or religious dictator.

This, of course, is not the aim of the Sunnis. They want to keep Iraq as a secular state, only ruled once more by themselves. In February 2004 Zarqawi recognized this reality, saw that the terrorist movement was failing, and appealed to the al Qaeda leadership to help him instigate a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. In this way, he hoped, al Qaeda might still come out on top and might still destroy secular Iraq.

Although it’s not certain who blew up the golden mosque at Samarra on February 22, 2006, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, the suspicion is strong that Zarqawi committed the atrocity in hopes of setting off a full-scale civil war..

The explosions generated horrific demonstrations and killings of Sunnis, and counter-killings of Shiites by Sunnis. These attacks are still raging as of this date. The golden-domed shrine housed the tombs of two revered leaders of Shiite Islam and symbolized the place where the Imam Mahdi, a mythical, messianic figure, disappeared from this earth. Believers say he will return when the apocalypse is near, to cleanse the world of its evils.

The Sunnis probably do not want an all-out civil war, at least until the Americans leave. Once the Americans are no longer a factor, they hope they can intimidate the Kurds and Shiites again. Meantime, by kidnappings and by bombing markets, restaurants, and other public places where civilians and police gather, they hope to create so much insecurity and disorder that no viable government led by the Shiites and Kurds can be established.

But this direct assault on the Iraqi people, especially innocent women and children, is unlikely to permit the Sunnis to spring back into power. They make up only about 20 percent of Iraq’s population, and the Kurds and Shiites are determined to throw off Sunni tyranny. Since they won most of the seats in the December 15, 2005, election, the Kurds and Shiites are certain to control the Iraqi government when it finally goes into operation.

To outside observers, it seems obvious that the best solution for the Sunnis would be to forget about trying to restore a period of dominance that is gone with the wind. So long as the insurgency reigns in Iraq, the United States will keep its military in play—increasingly by assisting Iraqi national army and police forces. Against this formidable combination, a minority-led insurgency is unlikely to succeed.

The situation is not in the least like the dilemma the U.S. faced in Vietnam. There the vast majority of the population was engaged in a contest to throw off foreign control and to achieve true independence. Vietnam was a war of liberation. In Iraq only a small minority—the Sunnis—is seeking to reimpose its authoritarian control over the rest of the people. The insurgency is opposed by most of the population, and moreover is becoming increasingly hated because of the murders of innocents.

Consequently, the only real solution for the Sunnis is an ironclad power-sharing deal with the Shiites and the Kurds. Their one remaining trump card is the insurrection itself. They perhaps can broker an agreement to end the violence in exchange for significant power in a national government.

The other choices are either a breakup of Iraq as a unified state or a continued insurgency. A long-term insurrection, however, has little chance of success. As more and more Iraqis are alienated, the revolt would slowly fade into the sort of futile, ineffectual violence that now characterizes the bootless efforts of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to drive the British out of Northern Ireland.

Either eventuality would be counterproductive to the interests of the Sunnis. Iraq’s only significant economic product is oil. Unless the Sunnis work out some agreement to share the proceeds from this oil, they may ultimately be reduced to a non-viable small state, without oil, around Baghdad, where most of the Sunnis live.

<< More Commentary by Bevin Alexander

<< Back to top