Iraqi Civil War? An Update

An a day when the top Iraqi general in Baghdad was killed in an ambush, our top envoy to Iraq issued the most pessimistic remarks yet by a still-serving official of the government.

The top U.S. envoy to Iraq said Monday that the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime had opened a “Pandora’s box” of volatile ethnic and sectarian tensions that could engulf the region in all-out war if America pulled out of the country too soon.

In remarks that were among the frankest and bleakest public assessments of the Iraq situation by a high-level American official, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the “potential is there” for sectarian violence to become full-blown civil war.

For now, Iraq has pulled back from that prospect after the wave of sectarian reprisals that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra, he said. But “if another incident [occurs], Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time, in my judgment,” Khalilzad said in an interview with The Times.

Abandoning Iraq in the way the U.S. disengaged from civil wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Somalia could have dramatic global repercussions, he said.

“We have opened the Pandora’s box and the question is, what is the way forward?” Khalilzad said. “The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across [Iraq’s] communities.”

There are some hopeful signs that this is happening. Iraqis are increasingly fighting back against the terrorists.

Tribal chiefs in Iraq’s western Anbar province and in an area near the northern city of Kirkuk, two regions teeming with insurgents, are vowing to strike back at al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni Arab-led group that is waging war against Sunni tribal leaders who are cooperating with the Iraqi government and the U.S. military. Anbar tribes have formed a militia that has killed 20 insurgents from al-Qaeda in Iraq, leaders said.

Separately, more than 300 tribal chiefs, politicians, clerics, security officials and other community leaders met last week in Hawijah, about 35 miles southwest of Kirkuk, and “declared war” on al-Qaeda in Iraq. In a communique, the participants vowed “the shedding of blood” of anyone involved in “sabotage, killings, kidnappings, targeting police and army, attacking the oil and gas pipelines and their transporters, assassinating the religious and tribal figures, technicians, and doctors.”

Further, Edward Wong reports on efforts by the United States to better integrate Arab Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces.

As the threat of full-scale sectarian strife looms, the American military is scrambling to try to weed out ethnic or religious partisans from the Iraqi security forces. The United States faces the possibility that it has been arming one side in a prospective civil war. Early on, Americans ceded operational control of the police to the Iraqi government. Now, the police forces are overseen at the highest levels by religious Shiite parties with militias, and reports of uniformed death squads have risen sharply in the past year.

The American military is trying an array of possible solutions, including quotas to increase the number of Sunni Arab recruits in police academies, firing Shiite police commanders who appear to tolerate militias, and sending 200 training teams composed of military police officers or former civilian police officers to Iraqi stations, even in remote and risky locations.

There is no quick or painless fix. The efforts risk alienating Shiite politicians, who have fiercely resisted attempts to wrest away their control of the security forces. The moves may appeal, though, to recalcitrant Sunni Arabs, whom the Americans want to draw into the political process.

Trying to reform the police forces could take years, because sectarian loyalties have become entrenched, and police officers are rooted in their communities, senior military officials acknowledge. Critics say American efforts to train the Iraqi police also continue to be hampered by a shortage of troops and civilian advisers.

Several of the initiatives, such as enrolling more Sunni Arab students in police academies, have been going on for months. Others, such as the deployment of the new police training teams, are just beginning on a large scale. The wave of sectarian violence that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 has heightened the urgency of the measures.

So, we have countervailing trends: The vast majority of Iraqis hoping for peace and wanting the terrorists to lose but the latter inflicting sufficient pain and fear as to undermine the confidence of both the Iraqi and Coalition domestic publics.

Update: Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who gained notoriety during the Valerie Plame affair, has apparently decided to audition for “The Daily Show.”

Assessing comments from JCS Chairman Peter Pace pointing out that there is a lot of progress despite the violence, Johnson chimes in with, “Let’s ask Iraqi General, Maj. Gen. Mubdar Hatim Hazya al-Dulaimi, the top commander of the Iraqi army division in Baghdad, what he thinks. General, wazz up?” And, later, “Could it be that our old friend, Baghdad Bob, has been brought back as an advisor to the US Joint Chiefs of Staff? What else could explain such delusional nonsense. No Civil War? My ass!!”

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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 and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. ken says:


    Yes they want the ‘terrorists’ to lose.

    But one Iraqi’s ‘terrorist’ is another Iraqi’s ‘freedom fighter’.

    So one kind of ‘terrorists’ want the other kind of ‘terrorists’ to lose.

    And all the ‘Iraqi terrorist’ want the ‘American terrorists’ to lose.

  2. LJD says:

    Iraqis are increasingly fighting back against the terrorists. It is becoming more and more clear that it is not the Americans inflicting the casualties on them, rather the ‘dead-enders’.

    Interesting that Ken recognizes ‘American Terrorists’. Care to elaborate on your source, or is this your own perspective?

  3. ken says:

    Right, and by definition whoever the Iraqis fight back against are ‘terrorists’. So everyone in Iraq is fighting ‘terrorists’. One side has its fighters that fight against ‘terrorist’, and the other side has its fighters that fight against ‘terrorist’.

    And people like LJD think that defining people as terrorists it really tells them something about the nature of the conflict. How dumb is that?

  4. James Joyner says:

    Ken: So, your contention is that al Qaeda is not a terrorist group?

  5. Kent says:

    Right, and by definition whoever the Iraqis fight back against are �terrorists�.

    Whose definition? Yours?

  6. ken says:

    James, from everything we know the weight of the evidence lead us to conclude that most of the fighting in Iraq has been domestic sectarian in nature.

    Who are you defining as terrorists? The shites or the sunnis?

  7. LJD says:

    I’ll refrain from name-calling…

    But perhaps Ken can shed light on why some one who indiscriminately blows up women and children, hospitals and places of worship, might be referred to as ‘another man’s freedom fighter’?

  8. ken says:

    James, from all that is known the weight of the evidence leads us to conclude that the majority of the conflict is domestic and sectarian in nature.

    So who do you define as terrorists? The shites or the sunnis?

  9. G A Phillips says:

    Ken does not understand Islam, he does not understand that we are in a holy war, he does not understand that the god and the prophet of this so called faith command their followers to use every way of the terrorist to spread this so called faith. Ken did you know that Muslims are terrorists(put to death the unbeliever even if it means your own death) because it is the greatest thing they can do to please their god? If a civil war happens it will be because two sets of true believers will go against each other to see who the real true believers are. and to call our solders who have woven into their creed that the greatest thing that they can do in their services is to protect others, terrorist, is beyond even the depths I had thought you would go, Ken, my friend, do you have any idea how this creed came about, I have a theory, could it be that this is the military of the only truly free Cristian Nation that has ever existed in the history of the world?

  10. ken says:

    LJD, your guess is as good as mine. But the answer may lie in the fact that it is human nature for people to excuse actions of those who they agree with and condem the very same action of those they oppose.

    So Iraq is experiences sectarian conflict right now and I would think it natural that each side thinks of the other side in negative terms.

  11. ken says:

    James, sorry for the double posts. I thought I messed up and erased the first one.

    G.A Philips, be sure to share that ‘theory’ of yours at the next session you have with your shrink.

  12. G A Phillips says:

    Ken, by shrink do you mean another liberal jackass who thinks he’s got it all figured out and is going to tell me how to live, dude, I worship God not monkey theory. Only fools pay other fools to tell them how to live or whats wrong with them when you can gain all this information by going to the dollar store and spending a buck on an book and doing a little reading, kneeling, and praying.

  13. LJD says:

    Wrong Ken.

    I agree with our foreign policy and the actions of an overwhelming majority of our troops. I disagree with some, when in isolated instances they step outside the rule of law. I support prosecuting those ‘bad apples’ because their actions hurt the majority of the troops doing their job honorably.

    I do not agree with ‘terrorists’, which is the name I use for some one who leaves a bomb on the side of the road to kill whoever comes along, be they women, children, men going to work to provide for their families. I do not agree with ‘fighters’ who don and abandon their uniform when it suits their purpose, who shoot from hospitals, or who store weapons in mosques.

    Yes, I condemn these actions, especially when we have given them a voice, a government structure within which they can voice their ‘grievances’. This one fact proves to me that they are not ‘freedom fighters’ at all. They fight for nothing more than anarchy and chaos.

    What is absolutely amazing to me… no, what really disgusts me, is that you cannot tell the difference.

  14. ken says:

    Well LJD, it is the policies that you support that have unleashed all the death and destruction in Iraq. This violence was started by people like you for your own selfish purposes and picked up by Iraqis for their own purposes.

    Your condemnation of Iraqis for utilizing violence to achieve their ends is pure hypocracy when you eagerly embrace violence yourself.

    You cannot excape responsibility for setting off the horrors now taking place in Iraq.

    The judgement of history will not be kind to you LJD. It is never to late however to do the right thing and to make amends.

  15. LJD says:

    the policies that you support that have unleashed all the death and destruction in Iraq

    Because there was no violence in the ME before we got there. Because the U.N. didn’t ask us to get involved a decade ago, to stop Saddam from invading his neighbors. Because Iran has been such a team player in the international community. Because the ME has worked very hard not to support terrorists.

    Your condemnation of Iraqis for utilizing violence to achieve their ends

    What exactly is ‘their ends’. Killing all those who do not support their religion? The elimination of Israel? What? I’m interested to hear about what justifies indiscriminate attacks, or those which specifically target civilians. Once you do that, explain to me how the tactics that we’ve seen used support ‘their ends’.

    You cannot excape responsibility for setting off the horrors now taking place in Iraq.

    You’re right there. We shoud lahve killed Al Sadr and his whoopdi long ago. We should have spent less time being politically correct and sensitive, and agressively rooted out the bad guys.

  16. Herb says:

    I see that Ken is off on another one of his trips, way out there, somewhere,, who knows?

    How’s the weather out there Ken?

  17. anjin-san says:


    For once, you make a valid point. It might have been nice if the Bush admin had made some sort of plan for Iraq beyond simply defeating Saddam’s armed forces, which was something we obviously were able to do easily.

    But that would have required thought, and that is something the Bush crowd is not all that big on.

  18. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Ken and Anjin on the same message board. Disaster. It is hard to gather that much misinformation together in one spot. You are free to rant, but you will get no traction here. Ken, if you want to know, first hand, what a terrorist is, get captured by some. Try to keep your head though. Even if you have been their best friend in the past, I doubt they would see eye to eye with your views. Anjin, you do not know what you are talking about. Go back to the AP boards.

  19. anjin-san says:


    Wow you sure are tough on terrorists from the safety of a keyboard. When are you joining “the mission” dude?

    So I am misinformed? Was the carnage & choas in post-Saddam Irad Bush’s plan all along then?

  20. ken says:

    Well so far all the conservatives have to offer on who the terrorists are is to say that the ‘terrorists are the terrorists’.

    With people like this in charge they would send a pre-teen girls soccor club to Gitmo if they called themselves the All Que Duhs.

    Meanwhile Osama continues to enjoy his freedom, courtesy of conservatives in Washington and around the country who think going after him would be too tough on a job for our troops to handle.

  21. LJD says:


    Still waiting for your ‘patriotic’ explanation of how our trooops in any way resemble terrorists.

    Just so you don’t remain confused, I’ll further explain the ‘terrorist’ issue. Iraqis that don’t want the U.S. in their country can help stop the violence, go and vote, and formally ask us to leave when they put a stop to their shenanigans. So much for ‘freedom fighters’.

    The terrorists, regardless of their religion, group affiliation, or motives (also still waiting for your explanation on that), are the ones who kill indiscriminately, who undermine infrastructure growth, who promote fear. Some of them, we now hear are Iranian, or are supplied with Iranian weapons. Their day is coming…