Power Struggle, Tribal Conflict Or Religious War?

Four experts shed light on what is really going on in Iraq

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

Few in the West recognized the depth of either the Shi'a anger at the Saddam regime or the Sunni rage born of loss of power. There is a strong sense of Iraqi identity among both Shi'as and Sunnis, but as strong allegiance to sect and ethnicity in every election has shown, a shared notion of what Iraqi identity means and how each community sees the future of Iraq is fast disappearing. As happened in Bosnia, in Iraq mixed marriages and shared memory of coexistence will not be enough to stop internecine violence.

Shi'as embraced the political process that the U.S. set in place in 2003 in the hope that it would guarantee their security and serve their interests. There is indication now that many Shi'as are having second thoughts. Already overstretched in facing the Sunni insurgency, the U.S. can hardly afford losing the Shi'a as well. If tensions escalate to a full-blown civil war, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria may all join the war to protect their co-sectarians and to scramble for pieces of a failed Iraq.

Pulling Iraq back from the brink will be difficult. Building a strong central government and an effective security force will help. The challenge is to get them up and running before events on the ground pass a point of no return.

JAMES FEARON Professor of political science at Stanford University

By any reasonable definition, there has been a civil war in progress in Iraq at least since the Coalition Provisional Authority formally handed over authority to the Iraqis in 2004. A civil war is a violent conflict within a country fought between organized groups seeking to compel a major change in government policies or to take control of the center or a region. The insurgents in Iraq target the U.S. military, but they are also fighting against the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government and killing large numbers of Iraqis. There is little reason to think that if the U.S. suddenly withdrew, the insurgents would not continue to fight to control or shape the government.

When we hear talk about incipient civil war in Iraq, the fear is of an escalation of the current insurgency into a much bigger war. Analysts may have in mind something like the U.S. Civil War, with Sunni and Shi'ite armies fighting each other across well-defined fronts. Or they may imagine a sudden spasm of massive communal conflict and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Bosnia or Rwanda. Neither scenario is all that likely, although bouts of violent ethnic cleansing are certainly possible in a few parts of the country, especially Kirkuk.

My guess would be that as the insurgency continues to create insecurity, sectarian militias will continue to grow in power and influence. They will increasingly supply local security, but in the form of protection rackets that extort as they protect. They will clash with each other over territory and control of revenue sources. Since the Sunnis remain highly disorganized, some of these local fights may initially be intra-Shi'ite. But in the absence of effective political incorporation and protection from national police and army units--which are heavily infiltrated by Shi'ite militias--Sunnis will gradually form a patchwork of militias. Neighborhood-by-neighborhood conflict and violence will increase. Think Lebanon.


Professor of history at the University of Michigan

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3