How to Stop a Civil War

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By Michael O'Hanlon
Monday, March 27, 2006

Administration officials have been right in recent weeks to argue that there is no large-scale civil war underway in Iraq. As long as the Iraqi political leadership remains generally united in trying to calm the situation, and as long as sectarian violence remains more sporadic than strategic (with no systematic ethnic cleansing, for example), true civil war remains a threat rather than a reality. But as President Bush himself recognized in his March 13 speech on Iraq, whoever attacked the Golden Mosque in Samarra on Feb. 22 was trying to spark a civil war. Yesterday's gruesome events, including the discovery of 30 beheaded bodies near Baqubah, heavy fighting in parts of Baghdad and the firing of fatal mortar rounds at Moqtada al-Sadr's compound in Najaf, suggest that such attempts will likely continue.

Of course, preventing a civil war is primarily a political task. In this light, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been right to push Iraqis to form a coalition government. He might also encourage them to start thinking about what policies such a government would pursue. For example, in debating whether Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari should retain his post, Iraqis might think a bit less about the past year and instead ask Jafari about his plans for the future: for sharing oil revenue among provinces, rehabilitating lower-level Baathists to reenter the society, integrating security forces and creating jobs.

But if the political process continues to falter and the risk of civil war looms larger, we will also need a military plan for quelling it. Much of the American debate has been asking how to handle an all-out conflict in which Iraq has already fractured and violence is rampant. But the more important question is how to quell violence in the early stages, before such a scenario develops fully. And this is not the typical debate over how fast and soon we can draw down U.S. troops in Iraq; rather, it is a debate about what they do while they are there.

On this point, initial indications are that American thinking is on the wrong track. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has stated that U.S. forces would not become heavily involved in any civil strife, leaving it instead to Iraqis to sort out the problem. This approach, which mirrors the relatively passive approach U.S. troops took to the reprisal violence after the Feb. 22 bombing, has an understandable appeal. But it is akin to our decision to stand aside and allow wanton looting after Saddam Hussein fell in April 2003, and it could have comparably disastrous consequences.

If civil war begins in Iraq, it will probably consist of increasingly active vigilante justice -- as well as random, pointless acts of violent rage -- by Iraq's powerful militias. They will attack defenseless mosques, homes of important figures from other ethnic and religious groups, and defenseless citizens. They will begin to perpetrate ethnic cleansing with cold, premeditated purpose. As time goes on, hearing about similar behavior by other militias from other sectarian groups, they will also be motivated by a desire for vengeance -- not just for Hussein's atrocities of yesteryear but for what happened last week and last night. And they will seek to protect their own unarmed families and friends by stepping up ethnic cleansing in neighborhoods where they live, to preclude the possibility of further attacks against their own kin.

These are the typical dynamics of civil conflicts, as analyzed by scholars such as John Mueller, Barry Posen, Steve Stedman and Chaim Kaufmann. Civil wars with a heavy ethnic dimension do not typically begin as full-blown conflicts but rather develop an internal dynamic in which hate, rage and fear increasingly influence the actions of a growing number of people.

In such a situation, stemming violence early is critical. Checkpoints need to be manned, curfews enforced, vigilantes arrested or shot, mosques and schools and hospitals protected.

Yes, Iraqi forces can do many of these things and should. And, yes, many of them will. But Iraqi security forces are at present politically untested. Most units are dominated by one group or another. If the country begins to descend toward civil war, the temptation of many will be to take sides in the sectarian strife rather than stop it.

The foreign coalition can do a great deal to discourage this. By deploying with Iraqi police and army troops on the streets, it can provide enough manpower to do the labor-intensive work required to restore order as anarchy begins to spread. It can help give Iraqi security forces the backbone they need to hang together and do their job for the country rather than fight for their Kurdish or Shiite or Sunni Arab interests. It can act as a glue, helping to hold them together by working with them and providing an example worthy of emulation.

In his statements about letting Iraqis handle their own civil strife, perhaps Rumsfeld was trying to drive home to Iraqis the message that they should not count on the distant American superpower to bail them out if civil war begins. This message is grounded in a sound logic; Iraqis do need to step up to the plate and solve more of their own problems. But as a full indication of what our military plans would be for any incipient civil war, it is not the right strategy. Now is the time to reassess.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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