The mainstream media has decided to start calling the conflict in Iraq a civil war. The Bush administration prefers “a new phase of sectarian violence.” Does it matter what we call the conflict? According to David Laitin, Stanford professor, “There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands the dynamics and how they in general end. This research is valuable to our national security.”
Adel Ibrahim, a Subiah Sheik said, “You need to let the world know there is a civil war here in Iraq…It’s a crushing civil war. Mortars kill children in our neighborhoods. We’re afraid to travel anywhere because we will be killed in the buses. We don’t know who is our enemy and who is our friend.” Three thousand, seven hundred and nine Iraqis were killed in October 2006. Over one hundred thousand Iraqis are fleeing to Jordan and Syria each month. While governments often do not want to label conflicts as a civil war; recognizing it as such, might lead us in the direction of an acceptable resolution to the conflict.
Dr. James D. Fearon, professor of political science, defined some of the criteria for a conflict to qualify as a civil war. First, a civil war refers to a violent conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, separatist goals, or a divisive government policy. Second, the threshold of one thousand dead must be met. Third, a civil war involves an attempt to grab power from the center of government or a given region, or the use of violence to change a major government policy.
The violence we see in Baghdad, the execution style killings, the ethnic cleansing, is carried out by organized militias. These militias are not just fighting the American soldiers; they are Sunnis fighting Shiites for control of the government. This would meet the first criteria of Dr. Fearon’s qualifications for a civil war. The death toll for October 2006 alone would meet the criteria of second qualification for a civil war. In testimony before Congress in November 2006, Lt Gen. Michael D. Maples of the Defense Intelligence Agency described the situation as an, “ongoing struggle for power” and a “significant breakdown of central authority.” This would meet the third criteria for a civil war.
I do not think most Americans are surprised that Iraq meets the definition of a civil war. The recent election was a clear referendum on the dissatisfaction that Americans have with the Bush administrations handling of the Iraq situation. According to a recent Harris poll, sixty-eight percent of Americans think the situation in Iraq is a civil war. Fourteen percent disagree that the situation is a civil war. Why did the media take so long to coming to a realization that the American people had already come to? Maria Gold of the Los Angeles Times wrote that, “The White House has exerted pressure on the media not to use the term.” Thomas Hollihan, a USC Annenberg School for Communications professor, noted that, “The midterm election results, widely seen as a repudiation of the administration and its policies in Iraq, may have emboldened news organizations to adopt a characterization the White House has rejected.”
The White House’s continued rejection, its refusal to acknowledge the situation, leaves us bogged down in Iraq with no clear plan to succeed. Columnist Craig Crawford said that if this were a twelve step program the White House, “hasn’t even taken the first step, which is to acknowledge and define your problem.” Former Secretary of State, Colin Powell said that the violence in Iraq meets the standard of a civil war and that if he were still Secretary of State, he would recommend the Bush administration adopt that language, “in order to come to terms with the reality on the ground.” It is time for America, for the media, for the new Congress, for the Commander in Chief, to come to terms with the reality on the ground. The Bush administration has not only refused to set a timetable for redeployment out of Iraq, it has failed to develop a plan, with or without a timetable, which would lead to redeployment out of Iraq. It is time for this nation to have conversation and develop a plan to stabilize Iraq and bring our soldiers home. If calling this a civil war can lead to experts on civil war helping us to find a way out of Iraq, then, by all means, call it a civil war.