The Magazine

How to Prevent a Civil War

The increase of sectarian violence in Iraq is now a greater threat than insurgency.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By MICHAEL EISENSTADT
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Sectarian violence has now surpassed the insurgency as the main security challenge in Iraq. Quelling this violence--which threatens to derail that country's troubled political transition, devastate the Iraqi people, inflict lasting harm on the country's social fabric and economy, erode flagging U.S. domestic support for the war effort, and heighten communal tensions throughout the Middle East--is therefore essential if the United States is to achieve its minimal objectives in Iraq.

Because the Sunni Arab insurgency and the sectarian violence it has spawned are driven in part by political grievance and ambition, it was hoped that the formation of a broad-based "national unity" government that included representatives of the Sunni Arab community would help stanch the violence. It is now clear, however, that a strategy of political co-optation will not, in and of itself, bring an end to either the insurgency or the country's sectarian bloodletting, which show every sign of intensifying.

Accordingly, there is a need for interim measures to contain Iraq's sectarian violence. Identifying the factors that give rise to and perpetuate such conflicts--drawing on insights from insurgencies and civil wars elsewhere, and proposing practical steps for dealing with them--will be critical to U.S. and Iraqi efforts to contain, if not reduce, the violence. So what is to be done?

Contain the Insurgency. The insurgency is the driving force behind Iraq's sectarian violence; containing it is therefore a prerequisite for curbing the sectarian bloodletting. Here, Malaya and Kenya offer lessons for Iraq. The fact that the Communist insurgency in Malaya (1948-1960) was largely rooted in that country's ethnic Chinese minority, and that the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1956) drew support mainly from the Kikuyu tribe, helps explain the failure of these insurgencies. Ensuring that the insurgency did not spread beyond minority communities was a key element of Britain's successful counterinsurgency strategy in Malaya and Kenya.

In Iraq, the Sunni Arab insurgency has mobilized only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of aggrieved Sunni Arabs with military or paramilitary training, and has little appeal beyond that community. Should the insurgency successfully exploit this untapped potential, or forge tactical alliances with aggrieved members of other communities, it could greatly increase its capacity for violence. Unfortunately, the creation of a political alternative to armed struggle has not prevented an increase in sectarian polarization or the rise of extremist Shiite elements, such as the Mahdi Army led by the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, now engaged in a low-level insurgency of their own against coalition forces. It remains to be seen whether U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad can make further headway toward co-opting the Sunnis without turning the Shiites into open enemies of the United States, and whether the sectarian violence has reached a point at which it is self-perpetuating and thus much more difficult to contain.

Mitigate the Consequences of "Sectarian Cleansing." Victims of ethnic or sectarian cleansing in civil-war-torn countries such as Lebanon (1975-1990) and Bosnia (1992-1995) who are forced to leave their homes and move to new neighborhoods or new parts of the country often cannot continue working at their old jobs. Some may find employment with communal militias and parties in their new places of residence. This provides many of these victims with the means to act on their desire for revenge against their former neighbors, adding fuel to the conflict. In some cases, these individuals may lead forays of militia death squads into their old neighborhoods in order to settle personal scores, or to seek retribution against former neighbors who belonged to "enemy" parties or militias.

To avert such a dynamic in Iraq, efforts to create legitimate employment outside the militias should be focused on the tens of thousands of displaced breadwinners. (According to a recent Iraqi government estimate, more than 30,000 families and 182,000 individuals have been displaced as a result of the most recent wave of sectarian violence during the past six months.) All such efforts, however, are extremely difficult to implement in Iraq under current conditions. The growth in sectarian violence may indicate that a cycle of revenge-motivated killings is already in motion.