Is Iraq headed into civil war?

American experts on Iraq say that country is either on the verge of civil war or already involved in it. They cite a mounting tide of Sunni vs. Shia violence across Iraq.

In a single day last week, four car bombs were set off in Baghdad; a man who had made himself into a human bomb detonated the explosives at an army recruiting center in Hawija, north of Baghdad, killing himself and many others; a car bomb went off in a marketplace in Tikrit, north of Baghdad; and in the usually quiet southern city of Basra, a bomb heavily damaged the country’s largest fertilizer plant. Also, a pitched battle occurred between U.S. Marines and Iraqi resistance fighters on Iraq’s western border with Syria. The military claimed 76 Iraqis were killed and more than 120 Iraqis wounded. No information on possible U.S. casualties was released.

Security experts say no major road in Iraq is safe to travel, and Iraqi specialists in Washington theorized that the Sunni resistance was effectively encircling Baghdad, cutting it off from the north, south, and west, where most of the Sunni communities are located. East of Baghdad is mostly empty desert bordering Iran.

Pat Lang, formerly the top Middle East intelligence official in the Pentagon, said: “It’s just political rhetoric to say we are not in a civil war. We’ve been in a civil war for a long time.”

Other experts claim Iraq is on the verge of full-scale civil war with civilians on both sides being killed. They say recent incidents south of Baghdad, with what appear to be retaliatory killings of Sunni and Shia civilians, point to that conclusion.

The media has also reported hard-line Shia militia being deployed to police hard-line Sunni communities like Ramadi, east of Baghdad. That approach is nearly certain to be disastrous.

“I think we are really on the edge” of all-out civil war, said Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University, who has worked for the U.S. coalition in Iraq. Feldman said the resistance has been “getting stronger every passing day. When the violence recedes, it is a sign that they are regrouping.” Feldman added: “I have not seen any coherent evidence that we are winning against the insurgency.”

Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations declared that everything we thought we knew about the resistance is faulty. “It was quiet for a little while,” she said, “and here it is back full force all over the country, and that is very dark news.”

Rising violence aligns with approval of a new, allegedly democratic government two weeks ago. Rather than uniting the country, the new government appears to have further alienated even the moderate Sunnis who believe they have gotten only token representation in the new conclave.

Sunni politician Saad Jabouri, former governor of Diyala Province, told an interviewer: “That is a joke. The only people they allowed in the government are ones who think like them.” He referred to the majority Shia faction, who mostly derive from Islamic parties.

A young Iraqi woman, who uses the name “Riverbend,” said weeks ago that there was little chance the new government would be secular.

Some observers contend the neoconservatives in the U.S. government intended to foment civil war from the beginning. They say the neocons believed that would split the country into small factions that would be easier to control and would permit the U.S. to keep a tight grip on Iraqi oil.

Military and civilian experts in the government said the resistance seems designed to outlast the patience of the American and Iraqi peoples. Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. expert in Baghdad, said: “I just think this Sunni thing is going to be pretty hard. The American public has to get its expectations down to something more reasonable.”

Lang said new evidence shows the former regime of Saddam Hussein made careful preparations for the resistance well in advance of the invasion, putting former Iraqi officers at the core of each group. They are well coordinated and have consistently revised their strategy, Lang said.

In the view of some observers, the 140,000 U.S. troops in the country are chiefly “a nuisance” factor in the rebels’ overall goal of keeping the new government from consolidating.

“They understand what the deal is here,” Lang said, “to start applying maximum pressure to the economy and the government to make sure it will not work.” He added the roadside bombs employed against U.S. forces are mainly to keep them inside their bases. Noting the mounting strength of the resistance, Lang said: “The longer they keep going on, the better they will get. The best school of war is war.”

Feldman said the Sunnis could win if they persist long enough to turn U.S. voters completely against the war. He added: “There is no evidence whatsoever that they cannot win” (

From the May 18-24, 2005, issue

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