Iraqi Civil War by the Numbers

Steve Clemons has an interesting post on the continuing debate over whether Iraq is in or on the verge of civil war. He provides an excellent roundup of what various politicians and experts are arguing on the subject. He then reaches an epiphany through an exchange with Markos Moulitsas Zuniga.

I had written in an email that I thought that we had reached a point of real civil war in Iraq and added that “the only question is the temperature of the conflict. . .60-70 deaths a day can easily rise to 600-700.”

Kos replied:

    The Civil War I partly lived through, in El Salvador, cost 100,000 lives over 12 years.

    That’s an average of 23 per day.

    The civil war in Algeria has cost 200,000 lives since 1988, or roughly 37 killed per day.

    And so on. What we’re seeing in Iraq is far more horrific than your garden-variety modern-day civil war. It truly, honestly, isn’t a matter of debate anymore. As for temperature, it’s already twice to three times as hot of some of the most recent, deadliest civil wars.

He’s absolutely right.

As I argued in a September 2004 TCS piece, however, a definition of “civil war” based only on casualty figures makes little sense because it “would include any significant insurgency and could conceivably cover even large terrorist operations or criminal enterprises such as narco-terrorists in Latin America or Al Capone-style gangsterism.” A better definition has been put forth by Stanford political scientists James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin:

(1) They involved fighting between agents of (or claimants to) a state and organized, non-state groups who sought either to take control of a government, take power in a region, or use violence to change government policies. (2) The conflict killed or has killed at least 1000 over its course, with a yearly average of at least 100. (3) At least 100 were killed on both sides (including civilians attacked by rebels). The last condition is intended to rule out massacres where there is no organized or effective opposition.

The numerical threshholds in (2) and (3) had long been reached even when I wrote that article. The key, though, is the political component in (1). While there is indeed a terrible amount of violence in Iraq that, as Kos notes, dwarfs that seen in some conflicts that everyone agreed were “civil wars,” most of it has been perpetrated by terrorists and others with no intention of governing.

Now, it’s debatable that there is a civil war even by this definition, depending on how loosely one defines “change government policies.” But I would contend that there are a relative handful of guerrillas and terrorists perpetrating the violence in Iraq. There are also a handful of regional “militias” and others with a different political agenda. Together, though, these groups have much more in common with the narco-terrorists in Colombia than with the FMLN guerillas in El Salvador or the various groups that opposed the government in Algeria. We are not yet at the point where significant numbers of Sunnis or Kurds are fighting to secede from Iraq or guerillas are trying to topple the existing. government and substitute their own.

This is not merely an academic debate over semantics. As I argued in a follow-on TCS piece last month, while we have a duty to try to help the Iraqis re-establish the level of security that they had before we overthrew Saddam, we can not take sides in a civil war.

Thankfully, however, the upsurge of violence that followed the destruction of the Golden Mosque has been defused and we are back to the more “routine” car bombings and other terroristic killings. There is still, therefore, time to establish civil society and maintain the thin web of Iraqi nationalism.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    Fuzzy math. The numbers work on the assumption that the deaths will continue for 12-18 years.

    Also, what contitutes ‘lost lives’? Are we talking about civilians, combatants, what? If we’re talk about enemy combatants, I would like to see the number much higher, and I wouldn’t shed any tears…

    Out of curiosity, I ran some research on U.S. death statistics. The results were shocking and offer some perspective on the Iraq war. The CDC reports the number 15 cause of death in the U.S. to be homicide, accounting for 17,700 (0.7%) deaths in 2003. Considering the current polarity in our country, are we having a civil war?

    Considering an estimated 30,000 Iraqis have died, is it safer to live in Baghdad than New York or Chicago?

  2. legion says:

    Y’know, the whole ‘Iraq’s not in a civil war la-la-la-la’ meme on the right is really beginning to bug me.
    -First, the mosque bombing. But thankfully, that didn’t spark a civil war.
    -The next week, riots and major car bombings, but that didn’t spark a civil war.
    -After that, we found adozen or so executed Iraqis, but still no civil war.
    -Now, ‘we are back to the more â??routineâ?? car bombings and other terroristic killings’, but there’s still no civil war.
    -The Iraqi parliment meets for a whopping 30 minutes and does nothing, and the Iraqi army has been downgraded to completely ineffective and non-independent, but there’s STILL NO CIVIL WAR, DAMMIT!

    At what point does the anarchy, lack of functioning central government, and continual bombings/kidnappings/assassinations become de facto evidence of an ongoing civil war?

  3. Tano says:

    If you are gonna complain about fuzzy math, why not first establish your credentials by actually doing some math? Fer instance:

    36,000 civilian deaths in 3 years = 12K/yr.

    Estimate half are in Baghdad (though less than half the population of Iraq, its rate, we can assume is higher).

    Therefore, approx. 6000 WAR RELATED civilian deaths in Baghdad per year.

    Baghdad has approx 6 million people – New York City has 8. Therefore If Baghdad were comparable size, the rate would be 8000 WAR RELATED civilain deaths per year. Normal criminal murders would be on top of that.

    NYC had ZERO war related civilian deaths this, and last year. It had approx. 500 murders.

    So, you tell me. Which is safer?

  4. LJD says:

    Therefore If Baghdad were comparable size, the rate would be 8000 WAR RELATED civilain deaths per year. Normal criminal murders would be on top of that.

    Exactly my point. In Iraq, deaths due to crime ARE INDEED included in the war tabulation. Because we know there is no war in NYC, we contribute all death to ‘crime’. Because people want so badly to believe there is ‘civil war’ in Iraq, such deaths are viewed by a different standard. (Not to mention that nearly every one in Iraq has an automatic weapon, which are more rare in the U.S.)

    If ‘sectarian violence’ results in people being executed, is that any different than those executed in gang ‘warfare’?

    Were these deaths in Iraq attributed to ‘acts of war’ (i.e. Taking an enemy position, defending a position, destruction of military assets), or is it just indiscriminate killing (i.e. ‘crime’)?

  5. McGehee says:

    Y�know, the whole �Iraq�s not in a civil war la-la-la-la� meme on the right is really beginning to bug me.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing. ;-p

  6. akdfjo says:

    Steve Clemons has an interesting post on the continuing debate over whether Iraq is in or on the verge of civil war.

    Oh come on, there is not even a war going on over there, let alone a civil war. Most of the alleged “deaths” are fabrications of the media. Bush and Cheney say that we are doing fine–their word is stronger than the biased media.

    The place is totally safe. In fact, I would encourage people to travel there on holiday rather than sites of extreme unrest like New York or Chicago.

    the whole idea that there is even a “war” over there is absurd. The mission was accomplished three years ago. Things are running quite normally now–go see for yourself. Take the family to see the lovely Iraqi beaches and museums this summer, you’ll love it!

  7. LJD says:

    Moonbats are so bad at sarcasm…

  8. dj elliott says:

    Bloods vs Crypts is a good equivalent. The Militias are armed gangs. “Sectarian violence” is a polite term for gang warfare coined by the political correctness police. Criminal activity always balloons in war zones and much of what is happening (and attributed to war) is criminal activity. And don’t give me the BS about the gangs not being ethnic or politically motivated. Most of the hard core are.

  9. Scott_T says:

    Trent Telenko has an post on Winds of Change that has a breakdown of numbers dead comparing the Bosnia Civil War (a true civil war) with the Iraqi “Civil War” as the MSM insists is happening now he posted today.

    Hopefully others can follow his simple math, as that is all some can follow. 😀

  10. So El Salvador – a civil war that killed 100,000 in fits and starts (there were periods of extremely intense fighting, and periods when there was very little fighting at all) over 12 years in a nation of 6.5 million – is to be compared to the Iraqi conflict we’ve seen develop over the last three years that’s killed what – 30,000 – 40,000? in a country of 26 million.

    El Salvador’s war was a clear battle between two groups, each with the intention and capability of defeating the other and ruling the country; I’d say that those are prerequisites to consider something a civil war.

    Is the conflict between the Crips and Blood here in Los Angeles a civil war? The murder rates in some neighborhoods in the 1980’s might have suggested so.


  11. pagar says:

    Figures for deaths in Iraq seem to be instantly available. Search for figures on deaths in America, traffic, murder, etc; the latest figures are for 2002,2003, 2004. Not 2005 or 2006, why is this info not available in a timely manner at: or
    Doesn’t anyone care that 42,884 people died in
    traffic deaths in 2003 or 42,636 died in the same
    needless traffic accidents in 2004. Someone posted 17,000 plus murders in America in 2003- Why?
    I think a lot more lives could be saved if there was a lot more emphasis on needless deaths in the United States.