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Civil war or goodbye?
Media General News Service


March 27, 2006

WASHINGTON - If you follow the strict dictionary definition, what's going on in Iraq isn't a civil war because it is not between geographic regions or political factions.

This is a religious war, mainly between the great branches of Islam, the Sunnis and Shiites. A third group, the ethnic Kurds, is mainly Sunni Muslim. They look out for themselves.

Since each of these groups inhabits a distinct geographic region of Iraq, they would fall into civil war if they start fighting each other for chunks of territory. But so far, they have avoided this.

The U.S. military has struggled to keep the Shiite warlords, particularly the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade in southern Iraq, from fully entering the fray. Talks, which began this week with Iranian officials, could be instrumental in steering this huge militia unit away from open conflict with the Sunnis. But some believe the brigade has been at work with crude reprisal tactics.

Members of the Badr Brigade already have been implicated in secret death squads created by Shiite-controlled security forces to assassinate key Sunni leaders.

Try to imagine what the American Civil War would have been like if South and North had represented different faiths in addition to their other differences. That's what a real Iraqi sectarian/civil war might be. No wonder President Bush openly ponders how to avoid it and American commanders spend much of their time pondering how to stay out of it.

The turmoil in Iraq since the Feb. 22 Golden Mosque bombing has changed the course of the Iraq insurgency and has also had profound affect on American public opinion. It is too early to compare this with the Tet Offensive that solidified American opinion against the Vietnam War.

Yet, even though the upsurge of violence since the mosque bombing has been mainly against Iraqis and not U.S. troops, President Bush confessed for the first time last week he has begun losing political capital because of the war.

While pronouncing himself an optimist in a Wheeling, W.Va., speech, Bush seemed to be taking a more realistic look at the course of the war. He said he now recognizes that the enemy is deliberately trying to turn the conflict into a civil war and served notice that he would not let them succeed.

What defines success by the insurgents may be crucial. Estimates of those killed in violence since the Shiite Mosque bombing are wildly in dispute. They range from 220 to over a thousand.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., pointed out on a trip to Baghdad that the insurgency does not yet constitute a general assault on the new Iraqi government. Thus it can't be a civil war, as long as Iraq functions with a working, elected legislative branch.

President Bush compared the new Iraqi government to the weak central government formed during the American Revolution under the Articles of Confederation. He appealed for the American people to give the Iraqis time to make improvements, just as 18th century Americans did before the Constitution was written.

It is the quality of the insurgents' victims that is testing the new Iraq. Police stations, prison guards and others on whom Iraqis depend for security have become high value targets, not the random, roadside passerby.

The message from al-Qaeda's Iraqi leader seems to be that homes will never be safe again under the police force Americans installed.

Bush tried to explain it as a last, desperate flailing by the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baathist party and the al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq. Having lost on the battlefield and in their bid to stop free elections, they are now trying to foment civil war, he said.

The enemy was trying to "shake our will" and he appealed to the public not to lose its nerve.

Yet Bush said this wasn't an American war to win or lose.

"It's the Iraqis' fight," he said. "Ultimately they're going to have to determine their future. They made their decision politically. They voted. And these troops that we're training are going to have to stand up and defend their democracy."


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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