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Civil War: What's at Stake in Debate over Words


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Is it a civil war or not? Debate has intensified this week over how to define the conflict in Iraq. On Sunday Iraq's former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told the BBC flatly, it is.

Mr. IYAD ALLAWI (Former Prime Minister, Iraq): Well it's unfortunate that we are in a civil war, we are losing a day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is. I think Iraq is facing, is in the middle of a crisis. Maybe we have not reached the point of no return yet. But we are moving towards this point.

BLOCK: At a news conference yesterday, President Bush was asked about Allawi's remarks. He said he disagrees.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Listen up, we all recognize that there is violence, that there's sectarian violence. But the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqi's took a look and decided not to go to civil war.

BLOCK: And today, Iyad Allawi modified his statement a bit. He told CNN it's not a full-blown civil war, but rather, terrible sectarian violence, which is probably an early stage of civil war.

BLOCK: In this part of the program, we'll take up the question with a professor who studies civil wars and with a former Marine who's written about insurgencies. We'll also hear from Iraqis about what the conflict means in their lives. We start in Baghdad.

Mr. QASIM MUHHAN (ph) (Morgue worker): (Through translator) Due to my job, I see a mixture of people who are being killed, both Shiites and Sunnis. My name is Qasim Muhhan, I am 35 years old. I work in a Baghdad morgue. Before the war, when one body was brought, all the employees used to look through the window and everyone used to ask what happened. But now, even when employees in the ministry are killed, no one cares. Since the fall of the regime, we have 50 or 60 bodies come in each day.

If things go on and parties keep seeking sectarianism, then we are devastated. I am an Iraqi, but if you ask me, I tell you that I am a Shiite. No one can neglect his creed.

Ms. OM GAYLAN (Iraq citizen): (Through translator): My name is Om Gaylan, I'm 42 years old, a housewife. I want to do this interview with you, but I don't want my husband to know about it. He will kill me if he knows about it, because we are a threatened and my sons are threatened as well, because we are Sunnis.

I have been living in my house for 17 years. I have many memories in the house, my rooms, my garden. I have planted some flowers. I'm sure now the flowers have a blossom because it's a spring season. But we left everything, we had do move from my house because we are getting threats.

I changed the names of my sons, Amar is now Ali, Gaylan is now Husan. These new names are Shiite names. I had to practice all the cultures and customers that the Shiite do. I started doing everything that they do, just to protect my sons and to enjoy security and stability.

BLOCK: Just some of the ways that the violence in Iraq has changed the lives of Iraqis. We hear more from Iraq in a bit. But first to Monica Duffy Toft, she teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. She's also written a book on civil wars titled THE GEOGRAPHY OF ETHNIC VIOLENCE. I asked her if she considers what's going on in Iraq a civil war.

Ms. MONICA DUFFY TOFT (Harvard University): Absolutely I think it's a civil war. And I think it's been a civil war for at least two years. Both sides are organized, people are being targeted, and assassinations. Absolutely I think it's a civil war.

BLOCK: The president yesterday and certainly other members of the administration have said this, that Iraqis looked over the brink and stepped back from the brink. In other words, thought about civil war and have stopped short of that.

Ms. TOFT: I hope that's true, it might be true, but I'm not convinced from what I'm seeing and what I'm reading within the interior ministry. You've got indications of death squads, where you have large number of Sunni men being tortured and killed. And so, there may be some in the highest levels of the Iraqi government who would prefer not to go to civil war. But there are many others who, it's not necessarily their preference, but they don't really see a choice. So the evidence seems to indicate otherwise, is what I would say.

BLOCK: Why do you think it becomes such a loaded thing, the decision of whether to call this a civil war or something else, an insurgency, for example.

Ms. TOFT: I think for two reasons: one is, is that it makes it seem as if we've not succeeded, that we have not achieved victory in Iraq. If we just, you know, now declare that there is a civil war and that somehow the sacrifices of the American men and women have made over there and of course the Iraqi population has resulted in a bad thing, which is a civil war.

And then of course, you know, related to that is the second reason, is it really harms our legitimacy over there, and, you know, the cause that we're trying to establish stability, and then we hope down the road a democracy. And obviously you can't have a democracy if you have large-scale violence going on. And so I think the sense that, it ends up harming that sense of legitimacy and then also making it seem as if the sacrifice was for naught, that we're not achieving the goals that we set out to.

BLOCK: If the administration were to come to you and say, Professor Toft, help us out here, do we stay, do we stay for the long haul, do we scale down pretty quickly? What would you tell them?

Ms. TOFT: I would say that we start scaling back and we are already doing this, we guarantee the external security of Iraq. We tell the Syrians, we tell the Iranians and we reinforce to the Saudis that we are not going to let this spill over into a regional war. And we guarantee that's their security.

But at this stage of the game, I think we're going to have to let the Iraqis sort this out. We cannot impose an order on this society. I think this has been shown. In a sense what we're trying to do is impose a negotiated settlement. But in order to have a negotiated settlement you have to have an agreement, an accommodation among the various parties. And we're finding that we just don't have this.

And the more and more the killing continues, the mosques are attacked, the bombs are blown up and the suicide bombers attack, the more you're going to have greater intensity and greater instances of revenge for each of the events.

BLOCK: That's Monica Duffy Toft, associate professor of Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

SARA (Iraqi citizen): (Through translator) I think the civil war has already started from deep down inside. It's not clear to everyone, but it is there. My name is Sara, I'm a 23-year-old engineer. I'm an Arab-Christian. It's not like the civil war of Lebanon because there it was in a more explicit manner and more public. But here in Iraq, it's hidden. There are killings, assassinations, kidnappings from all faiths against each other.

ISAM: (Through translator) My name is Isam. I am 50 years old and I am a teacher. I don't think that a civil war will take place because people are living together in a harmonious manner. There is strange mixture between the Iraqis in the north, south or the center of Iraq. It is difficult to inflame a civil war. There are attempts, but I think they are in vain. If people have common sense and the formation of the national government is complete, a government that all take part in, then I don't think such a thing would happen. I am between this and that, I am secular Sunni.

BLOCK: Iraqis talking about the conflict in their country. Colonel Thomas Hammes does not call it a civil war, he is a former Marine Corp officer and author of the book THE SLING AND STONE about guerilla warfare in the 21st Century.

Colonel THOMAS HAMMES (Former Marine & Author): Any insurgency is almost by definition a civil war. It's two groups within the same territory competing for control of that territory. Now that's not an international law definition, but it's a common sense definition.

Whether this is a civil war or not depends upon where fall on that. Obviously, to the person living in Baghdad, with people shooting, it feels like there's a civil war on. It's not quite a civil war yet, from our point of view, because there is still a central government we can support. And as long as that is there, and as long as the Iraqi Armed Forces continue to do things like they did after the mosque bombing, where they went to the street to calm things down rather than to heat things up, then that gives us a legitimate partner to cooperate with.

If it breaks into a full out civil war, where there's no longer a central government trying to hold things together, but a Shia group, a Sunni group, a Kurd group, then the question we have to ask, who do we back? And that's where it becomes, from a practical point of view, I think that's where the definition becomes important.

What does it translate to in action on the street and who you're supporting in what is essentially a political struggle?

BLOCK: Is there, do you think, a clear path here for the U.S. government and the U.S. Military?

Colonel HAMMES: Yes, and I think Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey have laid it out with a clear-hold-build strategy, where you clear an area of insurgence, hold it, and then bring in and build. There are two problems with the strategies that currently exist. We have insufficient troops to execute it for the whole country. That's one problem. The second problem is the administration is not supporting its own plan.

For instance, clear-hold-build, but about two months ago, they announced, unilaterally, with no occurrence from anybody, we were cutting off all funds for further building, well, so does that make it clear-hold-hope? I mean, you've got to have this third phase of the strategy.

They don't provide sufficient forces. The emphasis is supposed to be the Iraqi Armed Forces, but the Pentagon has not provided sufficient numbers of trained advisors. We don't have the formal advisor schools we should have. We don't have setups to provide them with the translators they need, the equipment they need. You'll notice all the pictures of the Iraqi police and Army, they're still riding around in thin-skinned vehicles. This is two years after we've said we have to have armored vehicles.

So all of these things, the administration's failed to support its own strategy.

BLOCK: Does it matter what we call this, whether it's an insurgency, a civil way or something else?

Colonel HAMMES: Again, I think for the international lawyer types, it matters. From a practical point, on the ground for a counter insurgent, you treat the patient kind of the same way, I mean, it's like a disease. You've got certain symptoms that you've got to control, and when the symptoms are controlled, the patient can start to get better.

So the first thing we have to do is provide security. Whether there is a civil war or an insurgency, you have to provide security for the people. Only when they have a secure place to live and some hope for the future will they start to support the government, and that's how you expand this until the government has firm control of its own territory. And that could be a very long time.

BLOCK: How long might it be?

Colonel HAMMES: An optimist says an insurgency lasts seven to nine years. A pessimist would say 30 plus.

BLOCK: That's Colonel Thomas Hammes, author of THE SLING AND THE STONE.

Finally, one more voice from Iraq.

Mr. ABU OMAR (Unemployed Sunni): (Through Translator) My name is Abu Omar. I'm 36. I live in Amiriya, west of Baghdad, the Sunni triangle, as they call it. As far as what I am seeing, we're about to face a civil war. The whole atmosphere tells you this. You see some people with their furniture leaving the area. Today, I was in Amiriya buying some groceries and I saw three cars filled with furniture. Some were leaving and some were coming. We started making jokes. The cars that were leaving are Shiites, and those who are coming are Sunnis. I am a Sunni.

BLOCK: The voices of Iraqis were gathered by Isra Arubayi (ph), Fera Kasab (ph) and Shahad Khassam (ph). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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