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.”
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.”
Attackers slit the victims’ throats as relatives were made to watch. Only the women of the family and a 7-year-old boy were spared, in an incident that evoked the internecine carnage that occurred in Algeria during much of the 1990s.
Alluding to the recent parliamentary elections, in which almost all Iraqis voted along sectarian or ethnic lines rather than for broader-based parties, James Dobbins, an analyst at the Rand Corp. think tank in Washington, has argued that the strong divisions have the potential to tear apart the country.
Already the fighting in Iraq amounts to an unconventional civil war, he said, one in which only one side -- the Iraqi government aided by its U.S. and British allies -- possesses heavy weapons, while the other side relies on guerrilla tactics. He, too, sees a danger of escalation.
“You could have a civil war of the sort that they had in Yugoslavia in the ‘90s, in which both sides had heavy weaponry and the casualties were much, much higher.”
In fact, “the main argument for America continuing to stay in Iraq and exercise influence is to prevent the situation from degenerating that way. But it is going to be difficult, costly and time-consuming,” Dobbins said.
The median length of a civil war, according to a 2002 study by Fearon and his colleague, historian David D. Laitin, is about six years, and on the whole, civil wars since 1945 have been more deadly than wars between countries, claiming more than 16 million lives and devastating the economies of the countries engulfed.
In September 2004, the highly regarded Royal Institute for International Affairs in London forecast that it would be difficult for Iraq to avoid a civil war, and that its ability to do so depended largely on whether the transitional government then being formed could give Iraqis a sense of ownership and belonging to the state.
Looking back 15 months later, Rosemary Hollis, one of the authors, said of the optimistic scenario, “I think you can rule that out.” Still, she is not sure the country is on the road to a breakup.
“The other scenario, still in play, is that it doesn’t fall apart but the tremendous amount of internal tensions kind of cancel each other out,” she said. Rivalries within the Shiite community, for instance, could keep its members’ struggles localized and prevent them for acting directly against other communities, she said.
Although still not final, the preliminary election results from the December voting for a National Assembly seem to point to the emergence of a parliament heavy on religion-based parties from both the Shiite and Sunni factions. Faring poorly were parties with a secular bent and those seeking to transcend sectarian or ethnic divides.
Disappointed secular and Sunni groups immediately charged vote rigging and intimidation; several leading Sunni politicians felt aggrieved enough to question the legitimacy of the vote, asking that it be held again. But the winning Shiite alliance has refused, and Kurdish and Shiite political leaders are starting consultations to see whether a national unity government can be formed that would satisfy, or at least mollify, the losers.
Most Iraqis shudder at any suggestion that the country could be plunged into full-scale civil war, but the danger is seldom far from their minds.
“The Shiites insist on their demands, and the Sunni and the Arab nationalists remain feeling marginalized and isolated or ignored and this and that, so I think there will be big problems and violence will continue” for the next two or three years, said Yunadim Kana, a Christian politician.
“Will there be a civil war? I don’t think it will reach that point,” he said, adding that no one can be sure. “Every time in Iraq there is A plus B that should equal C, but then something else happens.”
Wamid Nadhmi, an Iraqi political analyst, said he was pleased that the nightmare scenario had not dawned.
“Now there are indications that the country is being gradually pulled into some sort of a sectarian conflict, because there are reports that some Shia personnel on the one hand and some Sunni personnel on the other are getting killed. But up to now it seems to me that this is the action of small groups,” he said.
“It is more of an organized mafia rather than mass spontaneous activities.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country’s leading Shiite cleric, has been a consistent voice to moderate the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites since the U.S.-led invasion. Last month, he endorsed a unity government that would include Sunnis.
Bayati, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, says such enlightened thinking will keep the lid on. “Political tension by itself cannot lead to civil war,” he said. “Sectarianism is the one possible cause.... But the position of the leadership has pulled the rug out from under this proposition.”
The Foreign Factor
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and specialist on Iraq, warns against concluding that if the country is already in the midst of a civil war, it does not matter whether U.S. troops stay or leave.
Recalling the bloodshed in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, a civil war he witnessed in part firsthand, he says he can imagine the situation in Iraq becoming far, far worse if U.S. forces leave prematurely or are drawn down significantly.
With a weaker U.S. presence, brought about by eroding American support for the war, the neighborhood militias that have formed and are now operating “on the Q.T.” would be emboldened to come into the open, perhaps staging organized attacks against neighboring towns or the central government in Baghdad, Cole said.
Another tinderbox would be Kirkuk. In all probability, Kurds would seek a referendum to attach the disputed city to their regional federation, he said. “Are the Turkmens going to lie down and take it? Or the Arabs there as well? My guess is no,” Cole said.
Sunnis, long accustomed to running Iraq and now threatened by the prospect of being cut off from the country’s petroleum revenue, also would have reason to rebel.
“They can see the writing on the wall,” Cole said.
In any widespread civil war, he warned, Iraq’s neighbors would probably be drawn in, shifting the “tectonic plates” of regional stability. Turkey could seek to prevent the Turkmen minority from being overwhelmed in Kirkuk. The Persian Gulf states would want to help the Sunnis, and Iran would intervene on the side of the Shiites.
Fearon, like Cole, believes that a too-rapid departure by U.S. forces would be the catalyst to wider civil war. But on the other hand, he said, staying indefinitely gives Iraqis scant incentive to “get their political and military act together.”
“I think the U.S. presence makes it possible that you could have talks that result in a government that could function at some level, but the kind of depressing thing is that I don’t see talks leading to a government that could clearly survive without a pretty strong U.S. presence,” Fearon said.
As things stand now, “there is no real nice exit for the U.S.”
Asmaa Waguih of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau and Times staff writers Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.