Civil war definition transcends politics

Is the conflict in Iraq a civil war or not? Debate over this question is largely political. James D. Fearon sets aside politics to explain the meaning of civil war and how it applies to Iraq.

Does the conflict in Iraq amount to a civil war? In many ways, the public debate over this question is largely political. Calling Iraq a "civil war" implies yet another failure for the Bush administration and adds force to the question of whether U.S. troops still have a constructive role to play.

Politics aside, however, the definition of civil war is not arbitrary. For some -- and perhaps especially Americans -- the term brings to mind all-out historical conflicts along the lines of the U.S. or Spanish civil wars. According to this notion, there will not be civil war in Iraq until we see mass mobilization of sectarian communities behind more or less conventional armies.

But a more standard definition is common today:

1) Civil war refers to a violent conflict between organized groups within a country that are fighting over control of the government, one side's separatist goals, or some divisive government policy.

By this measure, the war in Iraq has been a civil war not simply since the escalation of internecine killings following the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, but at least since the United States handed over formal control to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004.

Here's why: Although the insurgents target the U.S. military, they are also fighting the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and killing large numbers of Iraqis. There is little reason to believe that if the United States were suddenly to withdraw its forces, they would not continue their battle to control or shape the government.

Political scientists who study civil war have proposed various refinements to this rough definition to deal with borderline cases. One issue concerns how much killing has to occur -- and at what rate.

2) For a conflict to qualify as a civil war, most academics use the threshold of 1,000 dead, which leads to the inclusion of a good number of low-intensity rural insurgencies.

Current estimates suggest that more than 25,000 Iraqis have been killed in fighting since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 -- a level and rate of killing that is comparable to numerous other conflicts that are commonly described as civil wars, such as those in Lebanon (1975-1990) and Sri Lanka (beginning in 1983).

The organization -- or rather, disorganization -- of the warring communities in Iraq means that a large-scale conventional conflict along the lines of the U.S. Civil War is unlikely to develop. More probable is a gradual escalation of the current "dirty war" between neighborhood militias that have loose ties to national political factions and are fighting almost as much within sectarian lines as across them.

This is roughly what happened in Lebanon and at a lower level in Turkish cities in the late 1970s. Ethnic cleansing will occur not as a systematic, centrally directed campaign (as in Bosnia), but as a result of people moving to escape danger.

And there's another twist to the terminology:

3) If the conflict in Iraq becomes purely a matter of violence between Sunni and Shiite communities driven by revenge and hatred rather than by political goals, many political scientists would say that it is something other than civil war.

Almost no one, for example, calls the Hindu-Muslim violence in India a civil war.

A civil war has to involve attempts to grab power at the center of government or in a given region, or to use violence to change some major government policy.

In Iraq's case, however, the vacuum of power at the center means that communal violence will inevitably be tied to struggles for political power and control.

A final complication concerns the nature of international involvement. Some argue, for example, that the war in Bosnia should be seen as an interstate war rather than a civil war, since the Bosnian Serb forces were armed and directed largely by Belgrade. Post-Mobutu violence in Congo is often termed a civil war, even though fighters have been closely tied to armies from neighboring states.

4) A conflict may be both a civil and an interstate war at the same time.

The Vietnam War, for instance, clearly comprised both a civil war in the South and an interstate war involving the North, the South and the United States.

Iraq may be moving in this direction. The United States and Britain are already openly involved, and such neighboring countries as Iran and Syria are more covertly involved. Not that it matters to the people dying there, but the next debate here may turn on whether what is already a civil war in Iraq should be viewed as an interstate war as well.