Iraq Runneth Over

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By Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack
Sunday, August 20, 2006

The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops -- and even they are merely slowing the fall. The internecine conflict could easily spiral into one that threatens not only Iraq but also its neighbors throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf region with instability, turmoil and war.

The consequences of an all-out civil war in Iraq could be dire. Considering the experiences of recent such conflicts, hundreds of thousands of people may die. Refugees and displaced people could number in the millions. And with Iraqi insurgents, militias and organized crime rings wreaking havoc on Iraq's oil infrastructure, a full-scale civil war could send global oil prices soaring even higher.

However, the greatest threat that the United States would face from civil war in Iraq is from the spillover -- the burdens, the instability, the copycat secession attempts and even the follow-on wars that could emerge in neighboring countries. Welcome to the new "new Middle East" -- a region where civil wars could follow one after another, like so many Cold War dominoes.

And unlike communism, these dominoes may actually fall.

For all the recent attention on the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, far more people died in Iraq over the past month than in Israel and Lebanon, and tens of thousands have been killed from the fighting and criminal activity since the U.S. occupation began. Additional signs of civil war abound. Refugees and displaced people number in the hundreds of thousands. Militias continue to proliferate. The sense of being an "Iraqi" is evaporating.

Considering how many mistakes the United States has made in Iraq, how much time has been squandered, and how difficult the task is, even a serious course correction in Washington and Baghdad may only postpone the inevitable.

Iraq displays many of the conditions most conducive to spillover. The country's ethnic, tribal and religious groups are also found in neighboring states, and they share many of the same grievances. Iraq has a history of violence with its neighbors, which has fostered desires for vengeance and fomented constant clashes. Iraq also possesses resources that its neighbors covet -- oil being the most obvious, but important religious shrines also figure in the mix -- and its borders are porous.

Civil wars -- whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Middle East -- tend to spread across borders. For example, the effects of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, which began in the 1920s and continued even after formal hostilities ended in 1948, contributed to the 1956 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, provoked a civil war in Jordan in 1970-71 and then triggered the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90. In turn, the Lebanese conflict helped spark civil war in Syria in 1976-82.

With an all-out civil war looming in Iraq, Washington must decide how to deal with the most common and dangerous ways such conflicts spill across national boundaries. Only by understanding the refugee crises, terrorism, radicalization of neighboring populations, copycat secessions and foreign interventions that such wars frequently spark can we begin to plan for how to cope with them in the months and years ahead.

Refugees Spread The Fighting

Massive refugee flows are a hallmark of major civil wars. Afghanistan's produced the largest such stream since World War II, with more than a third of the population fleeing. Conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s also generated millions of refugees and internally displaced people: In Kosovo, more than two-thirds of Kosovar Albanians fled the country. In Bosnia, half of the country's 4.4 million people were displaced, and 1 million of them fled the country altogether. Comparable figures for Iraq would mean more than 13 million displaced Iraqis, and more than 6 million of them running to neighboring countries.

Refugees are not merely a humanitarian burden. They often continue the wars from their new homes, thus spreading the violence to other countries. At times, armed units move from one side of the border to the other. The millions of Afghans who fled to Pakistan during the anti-Soviet struggle in the 1980s illustrate such violent transformation. Stuck in the camps for years while war consumed their homeland, many refugees joined radical Islamist organizations. When the Soviets departed, refugees became the core of the Taliban. This movement, nurtured by Pakistani intelligence and various Islamist political parties, eventually took power in Kabul and opened the door for Osama bin Laden to establish a new base of operations for al-Qaeda.

Refugee camps often become a sanctuary and recruiting ground for militias, which use them to launch raids on their homelands. Inevitably, their enemies attack the camps -- or even the host governments. In turn, those governments begin to use the refugees as tools to influence events back in their homelands, arming, training and directing them, and thereby exacerbating the conflict.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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