- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

When is a civil war officially declared a civil war? At what point does sectarian fighting, car bombing, kidnapping and random acts of intercommunal violence officially get awarded the designation of civil war?

The fighting in Iraq has been going on for close to three years now, and with every escalation in violence people start to shout: “It’s going to turn into a civil war.” And yet. …

And yet Wednesday, a group of masked and armed men jumped out of two cars, burst into one of the holiest Shi’ite mosques — the 1,200-year-old Askariya shrine in Samarra — and killed the four or five guards who had just returned from morning prayers. The group then placed explosives around the mosque’s golden dome before detonating them and destroying the historic edifice, killing scores of people.

In sectarian clashes after the attack, as news of the raid on the mosque began spreading, more than 130 people were killed as Shi’ites seeking revenge attacked Sunni mosques and vice-versa, continuing the eternal cycle of violence. Before long, people lost track of who or what instigated the violence, but at this point it no longer matters. Hate begins to feed on itself.

North of Baghdad, 19 people, 11 of them civilians, died in two bombings. The U.S. military said four soldiers from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, were killed when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb near Hawijah. This brings the total number of Americans killed as of Feb. 23 to 2,290.

In Julula, 75 miles northeast of Baghdad, a car exploded, killing three civilians and injuring three others, according to police sources and news reports.

So is that the civil war? Ever since U.S. and coalition forces first entered Baghdad a few short of three years ago next month, politicians, journalists and experts have predicted civil war in Iraq is imminent. Is this it? Is this the civil war? “Not yet,” A. Heather Coyne, senior program officer for the Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, told United Press International.

“However bad things are in Iraq, it’s not there yet,” said Miss Coyne. “What’s kept us from civil war is the restraint of the Shi’ite leadership. It would be a nightmare if they were to take off the gloves and let loose.” Yet the nightmare is already there for many Iraqis, civil war, or not.

Following the bombing of the sacred mosque, unidentified gunmen shot dead 47 workers traveling on a bus and dumped their bodies in a ditch near Baghdad Thursday, as militia battles and sectarian reprisals broke out.

Sunni officials said 168 of their mosques had been attacked, 10 imams killed and 15 kidnapped in the hours following the raid on the Askariya shrine.

Among those killed in the violence after Wednesday’s attack in Samarra were three al-Arabiya television journalists, whose bodies were found in the city’s outskirts. Al-Arabiya, based in Dubai, is seen as supportive of U.S. policies in the region.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, convened political leaders Thursday, but the largest Sunni faction in the newly elected parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, boycotted the meeting. Mr. Talabani told reporters the best way to avoid escalating the conflict was to form a government of national unity. Something he has not yet been able to accomplish.

So why is this not a civil war, yet?

“Political calculation among the Shi’ites,” said Miss Coyne. “They are getting what they want. They’re winning, and they are the majority, and they probably can get more this way.”

Furthermore, says Miss Coyne: “They still have control over the militias. It would be very scary to me to see competition between the militias.”

If that explains what is keeping the Shi’ites out of launching a full-fledged civil war, what’s restraining the Sunnis?

“I think there are a lot of divisions among the Sunnis,” says the expert from USIP. “If you are in a full-scale civil war with the majority, you are going to lose.”

And what about the other group? The instigators? The terrorists? Al Qaeda? Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group?

“There is another group,” admits Miss Coyne. She calls them “the foreign fighter element.” “There are certainly enough boilers in that group,” she told UPI.

But, she explains, what helped keep civil war at bay is that the Shi’ite leadership and the religious leadership have both condemned the attack. “So far, they have been able to channel the fury against the terrorists.”

Indeed, that may have worked, this time, but what about the next time or the one after? How long can this civil war that is not a civil war last before it becomes a civil war?

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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